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A case about to land in an Oakland, Calif., courtroom may open another front in the University of California’s growing scandal over retaliation against whistleblowers at its national laboratories. In Doggett v. Regents of the University of California, UC faces allegations that it forced out a manager at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who helped uncover billing fraud. The case could be particularly sticky for the university because the manager — Michelle Doggett — is a legally recognized whistleblower. That could open UC to punitive damages, Doggett’s lawyer contends. The case comes in the midst of a continuing federal investigation into the firing of two employees at the UC-run Los Alamos National Laboratory after they reported spending abuses at the lab. On Friday, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called on investigators to expand their inquiry to the Livermore lab, citing the Doggett case as one of the reasons. “I believe that these allegations, if true, would indicate that the recent disclosures at the Los Alamos National Laboratory may just represent the tip of the iceberg of mismanagement, retaliation against whistle-blowers and other illegal activities,” Markey wrote in a letter to the Department of Energy inspector general. It appears such fraud is “tolerated and enabled” by the laboratories, Markey wrote. He also asked Inspector General Gregory Friedman to investigate how much taxpayer money is spent defending the whistleblowers’ lawsuits. Inspector general spokeswoman Mary Sprague said the office is “assessing” the congressman’s letter. Markey’s move intensifies the spotlight on the University of California, which has spent recent weeks trying to grapple with allegations of theft and mismanagement at the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico. Two former police officers, who uncovered equipment theft and financial problems, were fired by the lab last year. The university recently rehired the men as consultants, but that wasn’t before the dismissal sparked investigations by the DOE inspector general, the General Accounting Office and Markey’s committee. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has hinted that UC’s nearly 60-year-old contract to run the lab was on the line. A string of high-ranking Los Alamos officials, including the lab’s director, have stepped down. Already, congressional and GAO investigators have indicated that they want to look at all of the UC labs, including Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. According to critics such as Markey, that’s a good place to look. Lawrence Livermore has had its own legal problems over the years, including two separate lawsuits filed by people who say they were retaliated against after they reported financial misconduct. One of those is Doggett, which is before Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Richman for a summary judgment motion on Feb. 28. Trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 12. Doggett was a resource manager at the lab who said she noticed that some workers billed time for projects they didn’t work on. She found other problems, too, such as subcontractors who were paid for work that didn’t get done. Doggett says for one such project, a lab official said the subcontractor’s pay was essentially “a bribe.” Doggett reported the misconduct — which she says involved projects that range from a few thousand to several hundred thousand dollars — and became an official whistleblower at the lab in 1997. Eventually, co-workers learned about her role in the investigation, Doggett said. “It went from a chilly environment to an arctic freeze,” Doggett said in an interview Friday. The former lab worker said she was given fewer responsibilities, got a bad evaluation, and her husband’s job at the lab was threatened. Doggett says she was forced to quit in December 1999. She filed suit in August 2000. One of the people named in the suit is Robert Kuckuck, a now-retired associate director at the lab whom Doggett says she begged for help. He did nothing, she claims. Kuckuck has a new role advising UC on how to clean up management of the labs. UC spokesman Jeff Garberson declined to comment on the suit, but defended Kuckuck. “Bob Kuckuck brings exceptional experience and integrity” to that effort, Garberson said. “In general, the university is very aggressively working to identify and fix problems at its national labs,” he said. Susan Houghton, a Lawrence Livermore spokeswoman, said that Doggett’s allegations are overblown. Houghton contends Doggett only uncovered about $40,000 in spending irregularities, and $32,000 of that amount was paid back to the appropriate parties. Houghton said the lab didn’t leak Doggett’s identity to her co-workers and only recently sought permission to identify her. The lab spokeswoman also sent The Recorder a letter to show the lab offered Doggett a job in her old division in July 2000 that paid $56,000 annually — a month before she filed suit. Livermore lab is not like Los Alamos, Houghton said. “I think that those comparisons are quite unfair.” While she cautioned that “we cannot control the will of 8,000 employees,” she said that the lab has a good system to track abuses. J. Gary Gwilliam, Doggett’s Oakland-based attorney, says the lab’s job offer was merely made to reduce how much his client could reap if she was awarded damages in trial. Gwilliam said the Doggett case is significant because the former lab worker was a legally recognized whistleblower, which entitles her to specific legal protections in the government code. That also means that unlike other suits against government entities, Doggett has a shot at punitive damages. Also, the statute shifts the burden of proof to the lab, said the Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso, Cavalli & Brewer name partner. Gwillam Ivary attorney Jan Nielsen is also handling the case. Gwilliam called California’s whistleblower statute “unlike any other in the U.S. that I am aware of. It makes her case very strong.”

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