March 24, 2017

Energy Department Whistleblower Finally Gets Justice

By the C|C Whistleblower Lawyer Team

Sandra Black did the right thing — and was fired.  As a highly rated and decorated employee-concerns manager at Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, Black was a channel for staffers to report safety, management and other issues at the nuclear storage complex in South Carolina.  But she found some of her reports were rejected by managers more interested in cover-ups.  She blew the whistle and faced immediate retaliation.

Now, more than two years after being fired for telling the truth to government investigators, Black has been vindicated and is receiving justice.  She won her job back along with lost pay and damages. The question remains as to whether the company officials who ravaged her life and career or attempted to conceal information about safety defects will suffer any consequences for retaliating against her.  And whether the Department of Energy will improve its oversight of contractor whistleblowers so others don’t suffer the same fate.

Barbara H. Smoak, a Savannah River spokeswoman, said the company will comply with the OHA order on Black’s back pay and reinstatement, which is scheduled for April 1.  She said, “we value the importance of a robust employee concerns program to resolve employee concerns through collaboration and mediation.”  That’s not what the record shows.  The Energy Department’s Office of Hearing and Appeals said Savana River’s general counsel’s office directed Black “to change findings that ‘substantiated’ concerns, and on one occasion, attempted to prevent her from reporting a matter to DOE for evaluation.”

An Energy Department statement said it is “assessing what further actions might be appropriate under the circumstances….DOE does not take disciplinary action against contractor employees, because that decision is within the discretion of the contractor.”  This lackluster response from the DOE caught the attention of several senators who urged the DOE to hold Savana River and other contractors accountable.  Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said “the DOE has the ability to make things right — first by reinstating its rules to punish contractors that retaliate against whistleblowers like Sandra Black, and second, by penalizing this specific contractor for retaliating against her.   The DOE’s failure to take any action would send a dangerous signal to contractors at the Energy Department and across the government that it’s still open season on whistleblowers.” Washington Post

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