Senators say DOE may have reimbursed contractor for fighting whistleblower claims

Senators say DOE may have reimbursed contractor for fighting whistleblower claims
© Greg Nash

The Department of Energy (DOE) appears to have reimbursed one of its contractors millions of dollars for legal expenses from fighting whistleblower retaliation claims, a pair of Senate Democrats say.

Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillOvernight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens Bipartisan senators unveil proposal to crack down on surprise medical bills The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh and his accuser will testify publicly MORE (Mo.) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSome employees' personal data revealed in State Department email breach: report Hillicon Valley: North Korean IT firm hit with sanctions | Zuckerberg says Facebook better prepared for midterms | Big win for privacy advocates in Europe | Bezos launches B fund to help children, homeless Hillicon Valley: Trump signs off on sanctions for election meddlers | Russian hacker pleads guilty over botnet | Reddit bans QAnon forum | FCC delays review of T-Mobile, Sprint merger | EU approves controversial copyright law MORE (Ore.) asked about the situation in a Tuesday letter to Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryOvernight Energy: House panel approves park funding, offshore drilling bills | Green group putting M into races | Perry applauds Russia boosting oil production Perry welcomes efforts by Russia, OPEC to boost oil production The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — Hurricane Florence a new test for Trump team MORE, citing documents that appear to show that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) paid more than $24 million to the partnership of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for costs from a series of whistleblower cases.

Rules generally prohibit contractors from recovering such costs from federal agencies.

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“Whistleblowers are an invaluable resource for weeding out waste, fraud and abuse — the last thing the government should be doing is paying the legal fees of contractors who’ve retaliated against whistleblowers,” McCaskill, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

“The Department of Energy needs to justify why it spent taxpayer dollars on reimbursing this contractor. And if it can’t, it needs to get that money back now.”

DOE and the Lawrence Livermore partnership did not return requests for comment on the senators’ letter.

The documents Wyden and McCaskill cite came from ongoing litigation involving a whistleblower, and they did not disclose the litigant in the case.

They say that in eight lawsuits, four of which are ongoing, NNSA let the contractor charge millions of dollars to the agency for costs that went to outside law firms.

McCaskill, Wyden and other senators with significant DOE operations in their states have long been pushing for the agency to crack down on whistleblower retaliation. They say that federal reimbursement for such legal costs makes crackdowns harder.

A 2016 report from the DOE’s Inspector General found various problems with how DOE determines whether to reimburse legal and settlement costs, while a Government Accountability Office report that year found that the agency inconsistently used its enforcement authority on contractors who retaliated.

The senators asked DOE in their letter to explain the costs that the NNSA did reimburse for and what the agency is doing to comply with the prohibitions on certain payments.