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Topeka Capital-Journal: Whistleblowers Win a Big One at Hanford

November 26, 2005
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By Louis Clark, GAP President. 

Eight years ago, a handful of pipefitters raised a critical safety problem. Their bosses at the Hanford nuclear weapons facility ordered them to install and then test inadequate valves in pipes intended to carry high-level radioactive waste. The pipefitters cited worker and public health concerns when refusing to obey orders, but were again told to comply -- with an added threat of termination if they did not do so. They stood their ground and lost their jobs, setting off an eight-year battle for vindication.

That exoneration occurred on September 2, 2005. A unanimous Washington state jury submitted its findings after an extraordinary, unprecedented six-week trial. It awarded eleven workers nearly $5 million in back pay and damages. The Department of Energy (DOE) contractor Fluor Federal Services, which had unceremoniously dumped the workers, was stunned. It had spent more than an estimated $3 million of U.S. taxpayer dollars in corporate legal fees to keep the case from reaching the courthouse.

Those who attended the trial were not surprised by the verdict. While a dozen corporate lawyers challenged and objected as the evidence of illegal reprisal and open hostility toward whistleblowers mounted, one lone attorney for the workers demolished the defenses of the contractor, along with the credibility of its bosses and other witnesses. By the end of the trial, the verdict seemed to be almost a foregone conclusion, although the level of damages awarded was a pleasant surprise to the workers and their public interest supporters.

There were other less dramatic victories along the way toward the ultimate jury decision. Years earlier, DOE had agreed that the workers were right not to install the inadequate, dangerous valves. It had even ordered its government contractor to reinstate the workers, which the company did temporarily until it manufactured another excuse to fire them.

The workers had even offered to mediate their differences through a special council for whistleblower concerns. Fluor opted for scorched-earth legal warfare. DOE backed up its contractor with a blank check on legal costs. In doing so, the department had not counted on growing unease in Congress as members saw the price tag mushroom.

Seven weeks before the jury delivered the pipefitters’ absolution, Congress stripped the DOE of much of its authority to pay the legal bills of its contractors against whistleblower lawsuits. The experiences and story of these whistleblowers played a pivotal role in prompting congressional action.

The pipefitters’ refusal to be responsible for possible injury or death to other workers, as well as their fierce determination to have their day in court, has changed the legal rules for whistleblowers nationwide. No longer can major contractors rely on the bottomless pit of the federal treasury to fund their vindictiveness.

As for the federal government -- this is the time to stand up for the workers who refuse to remain silent in the face of public safety, instead of greasing the palms of corporate lawyers. In fact, companies that put production quotas above human life require punishment, not financial reward and unlimited legal fees.

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