Professionalism/David Lappa and the Lawrence Livermore National Lab
David Lappa was a long-term employee at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a nuclear weapons lab primarily funded by the Department of Energy (DOE). Lappa blew the whistle on deliberate mishandling of plutonium at the facility. The subsequent retaliation from his colleagues became so severe that he eventually left the lab. David Lappa's experience is similar to the mistreatment of other whistleblowers at DOE facilities. These cases are symptoms of the culture at DOE, but they also share common elements with whistleblowing cases in all organizations.
David Lappa worked as an engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) at the University of California for 19 years. In the summer of 1997, he was appointed to an Internal Investigation Committee that examined the safe handling of nuclear materials at the facility. He was investigating the storage of plutonium, one of the most toxic substances on Earth. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh calculated that a single pound of plutonium could kill 2 million people if spread in the atmosphere.
Lappa was surprised to find that lab employees were storing excessive amounts of plutonium in closed handling platforms called glove boxes. This created a danger of a criticality event, in which the plutonium would spontaneously explode and release lethal amounts of radiation. Lappa wrote a report detailing his findings and recommended that immediate action be taken to correct the problem. When Lappa sent this to his superiors, he discovered that the safety violations were intentional. He was told to ignore them and to sign off on a report stating that no violations occurred. When Lappa refused to sign, he was subjected to coercion, intimidation, and open discrimination at the lab. He was secretly given negative job performance feedback, had his pay reduced, and was denied a transfer. He was also placed in an assignment with no prospects for advancement, was later moved to a windowless office formerly used as a storage closet. Finally, his supervisor told him that management was working to fire him. That same supervisor was caught removing Lappa’s name with white-out from the report he refused to sign, saying “I’ll be damned if there’s going to be a blank signature line on the cover of this thing.” Lappa eventually filed a discrimination complaint with the Department of Labor, which began a three year legal battle. This ended in 2000, when Lappa quit his job out of stress and exhaustion and immigrated to Australia.
Throughout this episode, DOE failed to fulfill its responsibilities to Lappa. First, DOE deliberately neglected to investigate any of Lappa's claims about mishandling of plutonium for several months. Secondly, once DOE confirmed that Lappa's claims were correct, it waived $153,000 in safety violation fines that it should have levied against LLNL. Third, it systematically resisted Lappa’s requests to gain access to public documents and to DOE investigators, which hindered his civil action suit and forced him to sue. Finally, DOE spent over $300,000 of taxpayer money on legal fees against Lappa.
Lappa's case is not unique in DOE, and DOE administration is aware of the problem. Two years before Lappa joined the Investigation Committee, in the summer of 1995, Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary enacted a series of reforms she called the "Whistleblower Initiatives." These were meant to enforce a “zero tolerance policy for reprisal” against whistleblowers. Specifically, they prevented employers from revoking a whistleblower's security clearance, placed a limit on DOE payment of litigation fees against whistleblowers, and established an "employee concerns" program to help ensure employee complaints would receive full attention from supervisors. While these reforms were well-intentioned, cases like Lappa's show that they have failed to reduce hostility towards whistleblowers.
On May 23rd, 2000, the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Commerce held a a congressional hearing on whistleblowing in DOE. During the hearing, Lappa's case was used as a prime example of the dysfunction of the Whistleblower Initiatives. The Subcommittee concluded that the DOE has a clear conflict of interest by independently enforcing its zero tolerance policies and acting as a willing co-defendant against an internal whistleblower. The DOE consistently ignored its own policies and demonstrated that it is unable to self-regulate.
Other Whistle-blowers at DOE
There have been many whistleblowers in DOE nuclear waste and energy labs. The security lapses identified by these whistleblowers often endanger public and national safety, but most of the informers still experience retaliation. Below are five recent examples of severe whistleblower retaliation at DOE.
Nuclear Security Professional
Levernier reported weaknesses in DOE's plans to protect U.S. nuclear facilities after 9/11. DOE revoked his security clearance and demoted him to clerical work.
Director of Safeguards and Security at Rocky Flats Plant
Ridenour noticed that contractors were not handling secret information properly at Rocky Flats Plant, a nuclear weapons production facility. His superiors harassed and intimidated him in an attempt to end his interference with the contractors. Ridenour later quit his job. 
Security Officer at Lawrence Livermore National Labs
Zipoli noticed a lack of protection for security officers at LLNL in the event of a terrorist attack. He also claimed that the training for security officers to help prevent such an attack was insufficient. He was fired. 
Special Forces Colonel Employed at DOE
McCallum raised concerns to his superiors about security standards in nuclear waste environments. He was placed on administrative leave and investigated. 
Program Manager of Alarm Station Operations at Rocky Flats
Graf reported that plutonium was stored in insecure locations and in rooms that were not up to code at Rocky Flats Plant. He was subsequently moved to the night shift and had his work load doubled. This prevented him from adequately performing his job, and he was eventually fired. 
Culture at DOE
The amount of retaliation against whistleblowers at DOE suggests that the Whistleblower Initiatives set in place in 1995 are simply band-aid fixes. Whistleblowers perform an important role in protecting public safety. The Initiatives need to be revised to foster a more supportive environment for these individuals. Many of the initiatives are reactive, because they provide support for the whistleblower only after the retaliation has occurred. This results in multi-year court cases which damage the image of DOE and ruin professional relationships. Whistle-blowers need protection that will proactively eliminate retaliation.
DOE Supporting Retaliation
In a Senate hearing in 2000, a lawyer for the Government Accountability Project, revealed that Rocky Flats Plant's law firm, Kaiser Hill, billed DOE for all fees associated with the Mark Graf court case. DOE also reimbursed all the expenses that the University of California's incurred from David Lappa's case. This is an example of regulatory capture. DOE is working to protect the interests of its contractors, not the public. By paying these litigation fees, DOE implicitly supports retaliation against whistleblowers.
Whistle-Blowers Who Were Right
Many of the whistleblowers's concerns, once investigated, are found to be serious threats to public safety. DOE eventually instituted new security measures in response to the complaints of both David Lappa and Mark Graf. Rocky Flats Plant updated its policies to reflect many of Graf's complaints. The DOE Investigator General examined Lappa's claims long after he reported them, and found that LLNL had violated DOE's Quality Assurance Rule. DOE forced LLNL to adjust their falling safety standards. These cases show that whistleblowers are valuable safeguards against normalization of deviance, and that continuation of the hostile environment towards these individuals could lead to accidents.
We can use the case of David Lappa and other informers in the DOE to make general conclusions about whistleblowing.
What is Whistleblowing?
The term "whistleblower" was coined by journalists in the case of Otto Otepka, who reported misconduct in the State Department to the Senate in 1963. Otepka's case is no longer well-known, but the term stuck. It is often associated with politically-motivated informers, such as Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden, but whistleblowers like David Lappa are motivated by safety or public health concerns. The term itself simply means reporting illegal or immoral activity to a higher authority. Sometimes that authority is internal to an organization, and sometimes external, like a regulatory agency. Other similar terms include "ethical resistor" or informer.
In almost all cases, whistleblowing is a devisive act which leads to public scrutiny of the organization or individuals who were accused. The colleagues of the whistleblower feel betrayed, and often respond with personal retaliation against the individual. These cases are highly emotional and are frequently highlighted by the media. Movies such as Erin Brokovich, The Whistleblower, The Insider, and Silkwood portray how whistleblowers are threatened and intimidated by former colleagues and friends.
The Components of a Whistleblowing Case
Several common components are evident throughout whistleblowing cases, including those at the DOE. The first component is a work environment in which employees are conscious of wrongdoing in the organization, but refuse to report it. The illegal or immoral activity may be perpetrated by management, in which case employees are cowed into silence. Some employees may feel that it is not their responsibility to report the activity, or don't feel that their actions will make a difference. These are all examples of the Bystander Effect.
Secondly, the informer feels that he or she has only two options: silence, or blowing the whistle. Two Australian lawyers identified this phenomenon in an article in the Journal of Business Ethics. It occurs when the organization provides no viable options to resolve the problem internally, or when management is hostile to complaints. In a 1989 study of American whistleblowers, social scientists Glazer and Glazer found that ethical resistors are often successful employees who believed strongly in the ideals of their organization. They feel shocked and betrayed when they find no internal avenues to resolve grievances or are told to ignore the issue.
Finally, the whistleblower's former colleagues and friends retaliate. This is a form groupthink, a term that Irving Janis coined in 1972. The effects of groupthink include collective rationalization of assumptions, belief in the morality of the group, and pressure on dissenters. In response to the stressful situation following the accusation, members of the group draw closer together by rejecting the whistleblower. They defend the innocence of the group instead of working to discover if there is truth in the accusation.
In a 2010 study of nurse whistleblowers, one former informant was reported as saying “I keep my mouth shut these days. I’m a different person now… In hindsight I wouldn’t have said anything… it wasn’t worth it really, emotionally”. She reported an inappropriate sexual relationship between a doctor and a patient. Another study of whistleblowing retaliation in 1986 found that 17% of informants lost their homes, 15% divorced after the incident, and 10% attempted suicide.
This analysis suggests an addition to the definition of professionalism. We contend that an important attribute of a professional is the ability to admit one's mistakes. In a whistleblowing case, this means rejecting groupthink, objectively reflecting on the morality of one's past actions, and being able to admit fault. It also means being able to forgive the person who made the accusation. Everyone, even professionals, will occasionally commit errors in judgement. It takes a great deal of courage and self knowledge to admit that error and to not shoot the messenger who publicly accused you of it. It is much harder for individuals to reject groupthink in an organization where management implicitly approves of retaliation, such as DOE. Reforming the Whistleblower Initiatives may encourage individual employees to act as professionals and end hostility towards whistleblowers.
- Kelly, Marylia (1998). U.S.A.: Whistle Blower Wins. World Information Service on Energy
- Glazer, Myron Peretz and Glazer, Penina Migdal. The Whistleblowers: Exposing Corruption in Government and Industry. New York: Basic Books, 1989.
- Teo, H., & Caspersz, D. (2011). Dissenting Discourse: Exploring Alternatives to the Whistleblowing/Silence Dichotomy. Journal of Business Ethics, 237-249. Retrieved from Journal of Business Ethics
- Janis, I. (1972). Victims of groupthink : a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Vinten, G. (1994). Whistleblowing : subversion or corporate citizenship? New York: St Martin's Press.