Skip to content

The Cloward-Piven Strategy at work in Tennessee!

September 27, 2009

Fired TVA whistle-blower faces investigation

By Anne Paine • THE TENNESSEAN • September 26, 2009

Gail Richards says NRC trying to intimidate her for reporting lax security

Gail Richards thought her nightmare was over.

In April, the Tennessee Valley Authority whistle-blower reached a settlement over her firing, which came after she reported security lapses in the power producer’s nuclear energy program.

But now the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission — the group that oversees TVA’s nuclear facilities — has started its own investigation of Richards for potential infractions, including whether she improperly took private documents that she used to defend herself in a series of workplace allegations.

Richards said NRC investigators grilled her for several hours this month in a Washington, D.C., hotel, threatening to get the Department of Justice involved in her case — a prospect that the wife and grandmother worries could lead to prison. She and her lawyer say the NRC is guilty of the same intimidating retaliation tactics that it’s supposed to protect whistle-blowers from.

“It was like I was on trial,” said Richards, 62, who talked to NRC investigators on Sept. 10 after being subpoenaed.”The NRC was picking up where TVA left off. I felt really intimidated. And then to have them throw the Department of Justice in my face, I just kind of lost it.”

Joey Ledford, a spokesman in the NRC’s Atlanta office, said he could say little about the case.

“I can confirm there’s an ongoing civil matter involving Ms. Richards,” Ledford said. “I can’t elaborate any further.

“We thoroughly look at all allegations that come our way. We do it in a fair and evenhanded way.”

Richards’ attorney, Lynne Bernabei, wrote in a letter to NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko earlier this week that the commission’s actions are indicative of a 25-year “close relationship that is not proper between a regulator and a nuclear licensee.”

Access was an issue

Richards, who worked for 18 years in TVA’s human resources department, had transferred to its Nuclear Access Services in 2005, where all went smoothly at first.

There her responsibilities in TVA’s Chattanooga offices included background checks and determining who would have access without an escort into secure areas of nuclear plants.

She received good reviews for her work, including a job evaluation in 2006 that included praise for her accuracy.

Things began to change, Richards said, after she reported her supervisor for allowing unauthorized people, including a cleaning crew, into secure areas.

Harassment began with false accusations that her work was riddled with errors, she said. An audit conducted by TVA in 2007 found no major errors in her work but turned up significant deficiencies in the work of others, according to her attorney’s findings.

She had continued to report on her supervisor’s alleged laxity and a lack of training provided to the staff who did background checks, including herself.

After being put on two performance improvement plans, Richards was fired in September 2007, though she was asked to stay on for 90 days to finish her work on a project. During a grievance hearing in the building where she worked, Richards said, she was escorted off the grounds when she provided internal documents to counter charges about her performance.

Richards reached a settlement agreement with TVA in April for an undisclosed amount of money. TVA spokesman David Mould confirmed the settlement but said he could not give details.

During the grievance hearing that was cut short, Richards said, TVA official Patrick Asendorf told her that the private documents would prompt an NRC investigation.

That investigation has come true, and another former whistle-blower said it’s appalling.

“If the NRC is going to go after the same people TVA is wrongly going after, who is worrying about the safety of the plants?” said Ann Harris, who reported safety concerns in the 1980s and 1990s at TVA’s Watts Bar Nuclear Plant.

Harris settled several harassment cases with TVA and now heads a group calledhttp://www.citizen.org/congress/govtaccount/articles.cfm?ID=18349“> We the People, a nuclear workers support group.

“The NRC is complicit with TVA in abusing employees,” she said. “They’re trying to cover their own tracks. They’re trying to make Gail back down.”

Bernabei said that the only effort the NRC made to look into Richards’ initial charges against TVA came six months after she reported them, and only after a story about her situation was published in The Tennessean.

The NRC effort mainly amounted to a series of questions in a phone interview and attempts by NRC attorney Carolyn Evans to skew Richards’ answers in a way that would cover up TVA’s problems, Bernabei said.

“It is clear that this entire investigation is a vendetta by the NRC against Ms. Richards, because she had disclosed both TVA’s and the NRC’s cavalier attitude toward security,” Bernabei wrote in her letter to the NRC.

In January of this year, an NRC letter to Richards, which referred to her comments in The Tennessean, said the agency had corroborated Richards’ concern about authorized access to secure areas. She was thanked for speaking up.

NRC calls process fair

Attorney Bernabei said TVA accusations that her client had violated rules by taking private documents to a grievance hearing were among the issues that were resolved.

Richards said she thought the settlement with TVA had put her situation to rest, but then learned of the NRC’s pursuit of her in July as she and her husband were mending fences on their farm in Marion County.

She received a phone call from her son saying two NRC investigators were at her home. She thought he was joking and hung up. Soon after, they came out in the field to serve her with a subpoena.

It said she would be questioned about “potential violations of NRC regulations,” protected documents and other matters.

Bernabei, who has represented many TVA whistle-blowers, said that NRC seems bent on stirring up a criminal case and that the agency has been far from evenhanded.

“The NRC is essentially by its action telling all employees that they can’t invoke a grievance because they could be prosecuted,” Bernabei said.

The NRC and TVA say multiple procedures are in place for employees to report problems without fear of reprisal, anonymously or not.

“Our process is very fair to confidential informants,” the NRC’s Ledford said. “It’s also very fair when it comes to people accused of wrongdoing. Things are thoroughly researched.”

Anne Paine can be reached at 615-259-8071 or apaine@tennessean.com.

Advertisements
4 Comments
  1. September 30, 2009 8:19 pm

    Your site was extremely interesting, especially since I was searching for thoughts on this subject last Thursday.

  2. Kellyann Curnayn permalink
    September 28, 2009 7:28 am

    Standing up for the truth will always cost you the comfort of being part of the crowd. Truth has become the new silly puddy of America. We can transpose the comics section, stretch it and roll it up in a ball and make it bounce exponentially.

    Truth does not look good in a prom dress.
    So why take her?
    Hanging out with Truth does not make people popular.
    So why include her with your friends?
    Truth speaks out of turn.
    So people make her out to be ill mannered.
    Truth always seems to talk about things that insist people engage in action.
    So why listen?
    Truth is a double edged sword effective in action but painful in implementation.
    So why endure such pain?

    You should take truth to the prom
    She looks good at the reunions.
    You should include Truth in your scope of friends.
    She is the only one who sticks around when the chips are down.
    You should listen to truth.
    True happiness is the balance between a tensionless state and the breaking point.
    You should endure such pain.
    The workout brings about strength of character.
    .
    Truth revealed can move mountains.
    But somehow the foothills appease the masses.
    Truth is a rare gem.
    Why has its value gone unnoticed?

    ~ Kellyann Curnayn

    • Tamara permalink
      September 28, 2009 7:03 pm

      Very true! I am amazed at the lack of outrage from the entire population of Tennessee over this backward move by those in power.

      When will the day come that protection is given to those who stop a catastrophe ??

    • Tamara permalink
      September 28, 2009 7:31 pm

      You poem has it’s own page on my Website! Take a look… https://tamaraheater.wordpress.com/truth/

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: