When Michael Bott flagged a Hanford accounting violation seven years ago, he thought he’d be praised. He was wrong.
Nine months after Bott objected to more than $200,000 in improperly billed garbage fees at Rockwell Hanford Co., his top managers called him upstairs.
They fired Bott on the spot. Armed security guards stripped the 39-yearold budget planner of his security badge and showed him the door.
“My life stopped on June 16, 1987,” he says. “When they took away my badge, they took away my identity. I’m history in this town.”
Bott’s seven-year battle over his firing provides a glimpse into an unusual legal system where nuclear contractors are defended to the hilt by lawyers paid by the taxpayers.
Bott acted as his own attorney until his trial against Rockwell was finally scheduled last year. At the time he was fired, Rockwell ran Hanford for the government.
He doggedly gathered evidence against his former bosses. He borrowed $15,000 from relatives and took out a $10,000 second mortgage to pay the bills.
While Bott scrimped to build his case, taxpayers shelled out $433,531 to Rockwell’s lawyers at Davis Wright Tremaine in Seattle through 1993.
The U.S. Department of Energy approved Rockwell’s lawyer bill under its agreement to assume all legal and financial risks for nuclear contractors.
Testimony in Bott’s trial last fall revealed that Rockwell officials were angry after losing the lucrative Hanford contract in December 1986. The company had to leave the site in June 1987.
Rockwell retaliated against Bott and other employees who pointed out corporate wrongdoing, the evidence showed.
Starting in January 1987, Rockwell gave Bott a series of negative job evaluations - the first he’d received in 13 years on the job.
The Benton County jury sided with Bott and awarded him $211,000. His trial attorney got $32,500 more in legal fees. The attorney spent $15,000 on the trial.
Rockwell appealed last December, so Bott hasn’t seen a nickel so far.
Taxpayers also will pay for the appeal, while Bott, now sick and penniless, is on his own.
His story has as many twists as a Kafka novel.
After losing his $30,000-a-year job, Bott couldn’t find work in a town loyal to Hanford.
He finally took a temporary, minimum-wage job with the U.S. Census Bureau in Richland but was forced to quit when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1990. His wife left him two years later as their financial troubles mounted. He was forced onto welfare at $339 a month.
Bott now lives alone on an $887-a-month Social Security disability pension in a sparsely furnished house in West Richland.
Tacked on the wall are photos of his 16-year-old daughter, the only reminder of his former life. Even his dog has cancer.
Bott is bitter about the way he’s been treated. He had tried to report the improperly billed garbage fees to his bosses by filing a formal protest.
“I thought someone would listen. I didn’t go outside, so I wasn’t protected by whistleblower laws. I was a fool,” Bott says.
“What bothers me the most is they are able to fire people with impunity. They fired me from a lifetime job, and my life went into the toilet.”
Westinghouse Hanford Co., Rockwell’s successor, is also involved in Bott’s case, even though it’s not a defendant.
Under a 1987 agreement with Rockwell and the DOE, Westinghouse agreed to help Rockwell with legal issues involving former Rockwell employees.
Bott was fired 11 days before Westinghouse replaced Rockwell. Many of his colleagues joined Westinghouse.
In 1991, DOE Chief Counsel Eugene Pride rebuffed Bott’s efforts to subpoena several DOE officials about the lack of oversight of Rockwell and the garbage rates.
Westinghouse attorney Robert Carter also objected to Bott’s subpoenas to former Rockwell workers.
“Westinghouse and DOE were trying to break me,” Bott says.
“DOE fought him tooth and nail. They treated him really badly - and he still won,” says Tom Carpenter, an attorney for the Government Accountability Project, an organization that represents whistleblowers, but isn’t helping Bott.
Westinghouse attorney Robert Dutton says the company cooperated with evidence-gathering in the Bott case. Carter, the former Westinghouse attorney, is no longer at Hanford. Pride is retired.
Robert Carosino of DOE’s legal office in Richland says Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary is trying to resolve many of the whistleblower cases.
“It’s not the policy of the department to ruin people,” Carosino says.
The DOE has not responded to Freedom of Information Act requests for how much taxpayers have spent fighting Bott’s case this year.
O’Leary invited Bott to Washington, D.C., a year ago as part of her campaign to stop retaliation against nuclear workers who report waste, fraud and mismanagement.
She met privately with Bott and two dozen other whistleblowers, and wrote Bott a thank-you note after the meeting.
On Oct. 17, O’Leary announced new policies to protect whistleblowers and curtail legal fees.
But Bott’s case remains unresolved.
“She made us a bunch of promises when we met with her,” he says. “It’s sad - people whose lives have been devastated were clinging to what she had to say.”