Los Alamos Scientists Say They Are Scapegoats in Disk Security Case

ALBUQUERQUE (AP) - Two Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists involved in the case of classified computer disks reported missing last summer say they are being used as scapegoats by top managers at the nuclear weapons lab.

Todd Kauppila, a team leader with 21 years of experience at the lab, was fired Sept. 23. Along with his last paycheck and termination letter, he said the lab sent him a distinguished service award for experiments certifying the nuclear weapons stockpile.

John Horne, a 22-year veteran, was put on unpaid administrative leave for 10 days in December. He said his career at the lab has been "destroyed."

The two scientists wrote a letter explaining their version of events leading up to the "missing" disks that was posted on an Internet blog for lab employees.

"We want the truth to come out," Horne said Thursday. "We are scapegoats, and that's the truth."

The U.S. Department of Energy in a January report concluded that bar codes were recorded for the classified disks, but the disks themselves never existed.

The mix-up led to a virtual shutdown of the lab last July and prompted the National Nuclear Security Administration to slash the University of California's management fee by $5.8 million.

Lab spokesman Kevin Roark said the personnel actions taken by the lab in relation to the incident "followed all due processes and were based solely on the facts uncovered during the lab's inquiry."

Kauppila and Horne said the incident was the result of an accounting error stemming from a classified international conference in 2003. Horne received eight barcodes and used six of them for conference presentations. He said he later shredded the remaining two barcodes, though he could not prove that.

Kauppila, who was conference chairman, said he never had direct contact with the disks or barcodes.

When the disks were reported missing last summer, Kauppila said he was contacted while on vacation in Washington, D.C. After talking with his manager, he was told there was no reason to hurry back to northern New Mexico. He returned a few days later, leaving his family.

He said his failure to return immediately was one of the reasons he was fired.

"The principal charges against me were clearly trumped up and included ridiculous allegations of misconduct, such as taking too much training," Kauppila wrote.

Kauppila said he and other co-workers who had come under suspicion discovered the accounting errors and traced the problem to the conference. They said they reported their findings to the proper lab authorities.

Both men said they followed security procedures in place at the time, but added the security system is broken.

"The system is a catastrophe. It's the people at the lab that make it work," Horne said.

In the letter, they wrote that a shortage of barcode scanning equipment forced many employees to visually read the numbers of each barcode and enter the numbers, which increased the likelihood of errors.

Kauppila, whose case is in arbitration, said he decided to go public with his version of events after the University of California, which manages the lab, began dragging its feet.

After months of wrangling over his case, he said he expects a decision in mid-March.

Kauppila and Horne wrote that once lab director Pete Nanos had declared the shutdown and claimed worker misconduct for the "missing" disks, his hand was forced.

"Firings of scapegoats were then essential, or a loss of public trust would be the inevitable result," they wrote.

Roark said Nanos was adamant that the investigation of the incident disks be thorough, unbiased and independent, and that lab employees would be held accountable. Roark said he thinks Nanos accomplished all these goals.

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