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Lawmakers have amended a wide-ranging energy bill to include limits on how much national laboratories can spend for litigation. The announcement comes as federal officials continue to probe how the University of California runs three national laboratories. Although the probe was initiated after a financial abuse cover-up at UC’s Los Alamos lab, the criticisms have widened to include the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is immersed in several multimillion-dollar lawsuits. The Livermore facility spent nearly $6 million on legal expenses in 2002 — more than double what it spent a year earlier. Much of that tab, which is ultimately funded by federal taxpayers, was spent defending the lab against allegations that it discriminates against women and that it retaliates against whistle-blowers. Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin, R-La., and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., have added provisions to the proposed Energy and Policy Act of 2003 that would limit how much the Department of Energy could pay contractors such as the national labs for whistle-blower litigation. Once a contractor has an adverse court judgment, it — not the DOE — must pay future legal bills if the lab decides to continue the court fight. The DOE, however, will pick up the tab if the contractor wins its appeals, according to the amendment. Markey and plaintiffs attorneys have argued that the Department of Energy’s complex reimbursement system gives the Livermore lab a “blank check” to wage legal battles. Markey often points to an Alameda County case where the lab is appealing $2 million in damages and attorneys fees awarded to a former lab worker who was fired after she testified in support of another worker’s sexual harassment claim. “The [Nuclear Regulatory Commission], DOE and their contractors have used every legal means at their disposal to thwart complaints brought by these brave individuals after they are fired or otherwise retaliated against,” said Markey, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in a statement. “The bipartisan amendments I added will help stop these abuses from occurring in the future,” Markey added. Another amendment gives more protections to DOE and Nuclear Regulatory Commission employees who become whistle-blowers and who face retaliation. In an e-mail response, UC spokesman Michael Reese said his office had not yet seen the amendment proposals, but added that “the University of California is trying to focus on preventing these complaints from becoming lawsuits to begin with.” He said UC has instituted independent whistle-blower hotlines at both Livermore and Los Alamos labs and enforces existing whistle-blower protections. “We believe our goals are fully consistent with those of Congressman Markey’s: to work in the best interests of the American taxpayer,” Reese said.

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