Los Alamos: Secret Colony, Hidden Truths: A Whistleblower’s Diary By Chuck Montaño

Reviewed by KAY MATTHEWS

Back Cover PhotoAnyone who has read the daily New Mexico press over the last 20 years knows who Chuck Montaño is. This Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) employee, activist, organizer, and whistleblower is now an author as well. His book, Los Alamos: Secret Colony, Hidden Truths: A Whistleblower’s Diary, is a blow by blow account of Montano’s tenure at LANL, and, as you can discern from the book’s title, an indictment of the mismanagement, discrimination, and retaliation he experienced, and witnessed, while there.

When Chuck was first writing his book a few years ago he gave me his media file—an extensive collection of newspaper articles and documents he’d kept to help him write his book—to look through for possible contributions to the Southwest Archives at the University of New Mexico. Even though I’ve covered issues at LANL since the early 2000s for La Jicarita, I was shocked at the sheer number of articles, mostly in the Santa Fe New Mexican and Albuquerque Journal, dealing with one controversy after another at the Lab. Chuck quotes from many of these articles in his book to substantiate his story, even an acknowledgement of the many problems there from Pete Domenici, head cheerleader for the Lab throughout most of his career:

“I have found myself increasingly defending the laboratory for failures of basic management . . . and security. While critics have carped, I have worked to ensure that none of the attacks harmed the laboratory, but that effort has come at great cost. Today, in Washington Los Alamos’ reputation as a crown jewel of science is being eclipsed by a reputation as being both dysfunctional and untouchable.” (“A Nuclear Lab’s Cowboy Culture,” Los Angeles Times, July 25, 2004)

Chuck was born and raised in Santa Fe and actually worked occasionally in White Rock, the LANL suburb community, with his dad, who was a mason. He went to college, got an accounting degree, and worked as a bank auditor before getting a job at LANL, with the help of an old college friend who was already working there. While Chuck’s way into the Lab was aided by the guidance of another worker, not management, one of the conditions he complains of in the book is that “LANL managers there were known for playing favorites with friends and relatives.” The nepotism involved in these kinds of hiring’s often discriminated against the Hispano community of the Española Valley, as most of the managers at the Lab were Anglo and often from out of state. Chuck failed several times to get promotions with many years of seniority: in the early 1980s, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) determined there was systemic bias in LANL employment practices, but the ruling did little to effect change.

While Chuck’s first job with the Lab was measuring materials that contained “Special Nuclear Material,” he spent most of his career in various accounting and auditing positions. As such he quickly learned that “Laboratory managers routinely ignored what auditors reported. Because of this, serious security and financial lapses occurred that otherwise could have been averted . . . and ended up costing the taxpayers lots of money.” One of the most tragic situations that arose from this was the case of Wen Ho Lee. Lee, a Taiwanese scientist, was accused of leaking design information on a warhead to the Chinese, largely based on the fact that he had copied files from his work computer to his personal computer for safe keeping, which was common practice at the Lab, despite warnings from auditors. More on the Wen Ho Lee case later.

Chuck’s profile at the Lab and in the community rose during the battles over impending layoffs—Reductions in Force, or RIF’s—in the mid-1990s. The Lab planned to send out “at-risk notices” and reduce the work force by 1,000 in 1995 and 500 in ’96 and ’97. The official rationale was post Cold War defunding that required belt tightening. The workers interpreted it as “a golden opportunity for managers to get rid of those they didn’t like.” As reported by Walter Howerton in the Rio Grande Sun: “Cutbacks are coming and they are going to hurt a great deal more in the Valley than they are on the hill.”

In 1993 federal legislation mandated that the Department of Energy (DOE) downsize after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But New Mexico’s two senators, Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, were powerful and protective of LANL. And the military industrial complex could always come up with new threats that created new missions at the Lab, which resulted in windfall funding for the stockpile stewardship program. The DOE was assured $3 to $4 billion a year to “replace nuclear weapons detonation testing with dramatically improved diagnostic and computer modeling capabilities, utilizing new multi-million dollar state-of-the-art facilities.” Under the radar, plans were also being developed for LANL, previously dedicated solely to Research and Development, to take over production of plutonium pits after the Rocky Flats, the DOE facility in Colorado, closed.

But the Lab stuck to its guns that layoffs were still needed, and employees began to organize, meeting informally at a local church, talking to the press, and meeting with Domenici to state their case. Lab director Sig Hecker then changed tack and decided that he would allow people to voluntarily leave with severance pay, but restricted that number to 250 instead the 500 who were willing to retire. In a last ditch effort to save jobs targeted employees, with the help of Santa Fe attorneys Carol Oppenheimer and Morty Simon, filed for an injunction, arguing that workers had been chosen for termination in a way that violated basic labor protections. While the judge temporarily granted the injunction, LANL immediately appealed and the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that the lower court didn’t have the right to interfere with the Lab’s “efforts to streamline its operations.”

What good came out of all of this was the formal organization called Citizens for LANL Employee Rights, or CLER, which in turn eventually led to the right of LANL workers to collectively bargain, overturning a University of California (manager of LANL) policy that precluded UC workers outside the state of California labor protection. Eventually, the University Professional and Technical Employee (UTEP) Local was established at LANL, with longtime employee Manny Trujillo as president.

Notably absent during these mid-90 years of employee turmoil was Representative Bill Richardson, whose third congressional district included Los Alamos and the Rio Arriba Valley, where many of the workers lived. Chuck minces no words in his criticism of the congressman. When Chuck and fellow CLER members traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with the congressional delegation about the RIFs, the congressman told them he would be out of the capital when they were there. After meeting with Domenici, who did they encounter standing in the hallway outside his office? Congressman Richardson. According to Chuck’s assessment, Richardson’s “arms-length relationship with the fired labees” was on account of his political ambition for posts in the Clinton administration: first, ambassador to the UN, then, Secretary of the DOE.

It was during Richardson’s tenure at the DOE that Wen Ho Lee was charged with leaking secrets to the Chinese. After being held in solitary confinement for nine months in a Santa Fe jail, Lee “pleaded guilty to one count of classified information [transferring his work onto his personal computer] in exchange for time served. . . . A jury would have probably found him innocent of every thing. . . .” The federal government failed to establish any basis for espionage. And it was Bill Richardson who was later revealed as the likely source who identified Lee as a suspect in the investigation while he was Secretary of the DOE. In 2006 Lee won a $1.6 million settlement with the federal government and five media outlets.

Much of Chuck’s book documents the plight of those who became whistleblowers at LANL, revealing circumstances of fraud, environmental contamination, and retaliation. Chuck’s own career “had been on life support since the mid-1990s” due to his involvement with the RIFs. But he got a second chance at doing something meaningful when his colleague Tommy Hook recruited him to join in a new job as auditors of all LANL business operations, including accounting, budgeting, and property management. Hook was the former whistleblower officer at the Lab whose auditing career had also been derailed by “relentless retribution” since he, too, had testified in connection with the 1995 layoffs. Both Chuck and Hook knew that because the University of California moved the internal audit function at LANL from the University to the LAb itself in 1992, essentially assigning the fox to guard the hen house, they would probably be constrained from the beginning.

They undertook the job, however, and their concerns were soon validated. They found out that not much had changed in terms of what they were allowed to report when it came to procurement fraud: “In total, millions of dollars of questionable and unallowed expenditures were identified through our assessments of the laboratory’s procurement processes, something the lab executive director didn’t want to hear.”

When Chuck and Hook objected to the LANL director’s refusal to allow them to provide the DOE access to this assessment, all their assignments were removed and Hook was stripped of his supervisory authority. He was able to find a temporary role in another section of the Lab (more on Hook later), but for Chuck, it was the beginning of nine months of isolation, “cubicle detention,” as he calls it, with no work. He filed a whistleblower’s suit—something he had always advised others to avoid because of deep Lab pockets that assured every lawsuit would be litigated—and convinced Hook to join him in the suit. They were represented by a Washington D.C. law firm that also represented other LANL whistleblowers. Chuck eventually settled received a settlement from the Lab in 2011.

Glenn Walp and Steve Doran

Several of the other whistleblowers who Chuck writes about had very high profile lawsuits that were covered extensively in the media. In early 2002 two former law enforcement officers were hired by the Lab to look into mismanagement (especially the handling of the Wen Ho Lee case) and thefts that had been occurring. They soon began to investigate, along with the FBI, a massive procurement fraud case. Glenn Walp and Steve Doran discovered a huge cache of stolen merchandise in a vacant Cold War bunker at the Lab. In November they were also tipped off to the location of more stolen merchandise but were fired the next day: “The day Glenn and Steve were escorted off laboratory premises, the investigation they were pursing came to an abrupt end. . . . Since people rarely lost their jobs at LANL, what happened . . . would be inconceivable were it not for the fact that they were trying to fix problems institutional leaders didn’t even want to admit existed.” Walp and Doran filed whistleblower lawsuits against the University of California, which eventually settled with them both, and Walp wrote a book about the experience: Implosion at Los Alamos: How Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Ups Jeopardize America’s Nuclear Weapons Secrets.

 Joe Gutierrez

La Jicarita interviewed Joe Gutierrez in 2010. He worked as a Quality Assurance Assessor at LANL. During his tenure he discovered numerous violations regarding radionuclide emissions: compiling data with different methodologies; missing records; and defects in the plutonium processing facility. When Lab management failed to act on his reports he provided the Santa Fe nuclear watchdog group Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS) evidence that LANL was violating the Clear Air Act. CCNS sued the Lab to force it to comply with the Act, citing it had failed to identify all sources of radionuclide released emissions or install monitoring equipment on vapor-release stacks. CCNS was victorious in the lawsuit. Gutierrez subsequently got an unfavorable job evaluation; his whistleblower complaint dragged on for years until he eventually got a severance package to leave the Lab in 2010.

 Tommy Hook

It’s very difficult to write about Tommy Hook. His story also made explosive headlines in the local press when he was attacked and severely beaten in the parking lot of a Santa Fe strip club in 2005. This was after he and Chuck had been demoted from their auditing partnership at the Lab, but right before Hook was being called before a congressional hearing about financial waste and mismanagement at the Lab (he had also been called to testify at a hearing that had been scheduled on the whistleblowing suit brought by Walp and Doran but UC settled that suit just before the hearing). According to Hook’s account, a Lab employee called him the day of the beating and asked him to meet him at the club because he had evidence to support the claims Hook was going to present at the hearing. The employee never showed up and as Hook was leaving, at 2:00 am, he was attacked in the parking lot, severely beaten, and finally saved by the club’s bouncer. He ended up in the hospital with a broken jaw and severe head lacerations. His wife called Chuck, who came to the hospital at 5 am. Hook managed to convey to him that the attackers had told him to “be careful”: “They kept telling me to keep my fucking mouth shut.” Those who were eventually arrested and found guilty denied any connection to LANL. In a weird turn of events, UC subsequently issued a statement that an independent investigator found a single instance of retaliation by the Lab against Hook as a whistleblower but qualified the admission that the retaliation was “not intentional”—whatever that meant.

The last part of Chuck’s book reads like a murder mystery. It deals with the resolution of the investigation over which Walp and Duran were fired—the stolen merchandise in the Cold War bunker. The Lab employees who committed the thefts were identified during the investigation of Walp and Duran’s dismissal, but what proved especially shocking was their connection to the former LANL deputy director who was found dead with a gun shot wound in the parking lot of the Los Alamos Ski Area. You’ll have to read the book to work through this mysterious—and tragic—end to Chuck’s tenure at LANL. In a press release about the book, Chuck has this to say about this troubling case: “Why would there be any reluctance to investigate, legitimately, the mysterious death of the second-in-command of a national security installation like Los Alamos, unless there was significant political pressure NOT to do so? And why would that pressure be brought to bear, if it were not to protect an institution that receives over $2 billion a year in taxpayer dollars and benefits some of the largest, most powerful military-industrial interests on the planet? In a nutshell, it’s about maintaining the status quo . . . about keeping the University of California in charge in Los Alamos at all cost, even if it means derailing an ongoing criminal review and preventing someone’s death from being properly investigated. THIS is the story . . . no accountability in Los Alamos whatsoever. And this is the institution we’re supposed to trust with plutonium?”

This book had to be a difficult undertaking. Chuck not only recorded a very complicated personal history that happened over a very long period of time but also dug deeper into an institutional history and philosophy that contextualized his story—and the story of so many others. His narrative is sometimes convoluted, more from the structure than the content. He mentions situations or occurrences in passing that haven’t yet been explained, leaving the reader confused. There are also redundancies that could have been avoided with better organization of the material. But these lapses are tolerable because his story is not only riveting but heartbreaking, told in often eloquent and passionate language.

At one point in the book Chuck has this to say: “. . . there were many decent people who lived and worked at LANL—the vast majority of employees, in fact.” LANL has kept many of my neighbors employed for all the years I’ve lived in northern New Mexico. But to read Chuck’s book is to understand how an institution of this magnitude and importance can negatively impact so many people’s lives, when held unaccountable: “As for whistleblowers, they, in reality, were typically abandoned and forgotten, relegated to an existence of perpetual career marginalization and ongoing retribution; essentially left to wither away and die on the vine, while those responsible remained largely unaffected, unrepentant, and forever unchanged.”

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6 comments

  1. I don’t believe that Mr. Montano’s book is available anywhere in the Boston area. Please let me know.

  2. Thank you, Kay Matthews, for your review of Chuck’s 2015 book. Your perspective is empowering for some of those including myself who were directly involved in events mentioned in his book but as panned by your review. It’s empowering as it crystallizes into the clarity of just a few lines some of the meaning of those events. Thus it is evident that some good came out of our losses as former LANL workers as of health, jobs, and careers that resulted from some of LANL’s actions such as the infamous late 1995 layoff. This good is especially evident in the ninth paragraph of your review which starts with “”What good came out of all of this was the formal organization called Citizens for LANL Employee Rights, or CLER” and continues with the result that “the University Professional and Technical Employee (UTEP) Local was established at LANL.” Thus, logic dictates, the rights and dignity of LANL workers today are better protected than they were in my day. This gives hope that the culture at LANL itself will gradually change for the better, too. Additional hope that this is not ‘pie in the sky’ is the existence and functioning of The LANL Foundation created in 1997, which in annual cycles pays out, among other things, scholarships to college-bound high-school seniors in the seven-county area it serves in north central New Mexico. These two examples indicate that there is an historic move afoot to protect the human ecology of the region which is so important for the protection and preservation of its natural environment.

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