Labs under further scrutiny

    Amidst allegations of mismanagement and fiscal errors at two of its three national laboratories dating back three years, the University of California is under scrutiny once again for financial bookkeeping irregularities at its third laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

    William Wasson, the chief financial officer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was placed on administrative leave after external auditors discovered the errors last month.

    “”They’re not alleging fraud or criminal misconduct or missing money,”” lab spokesperson Reid Edwards said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “”The books just weren’t clear enough or concise enough.””

    If the allegations are true, Wasson could be suspended or even dismissed from his position at the laboratory.

    This incident follows similar but more severe allegations at Los Alamos National Laboratory in November 2002 and at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in early 2000.

    In each of the other two cases, the University of California awarded $1 million settlements to the whistleblowers who filed lawsuits after they brought the issue of questionable accounting practices to the attention of management.

    They were then dismissed from their laboratory positions, thus hinting at the idea of a cover-up.

    The University of California settled in an attempt to move past the incidents.

    “”It was in the best interest of everyone involved to settle,”” said Lawrence Livermore Laboratory spokesperson Lynda Seaver. “”Both parties wanted to move forward.””

    In the wake of the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore problems, the University of California tried to improve management of its national labs with a series of personnel changes including the resignation of the director and principle deputy director at Los Alamos and the appointment of UC senior executives as interim administrators for laboratory operations.

    “”We’ve taken corrective actions to solve the problems and to ensure that these types of mismanagement practices do not happen again,”” Seaver said.

    Major accounting firms have also been contracted to review financial and business operations. These firms include Ernst & Young and Pricewaterhouse Coopers, which incidentally brought the recent financial matters at Lawrence Berkeley to light.

    “”We have taken these sweeping and dramatic steps because of the pride we at the University of California feel for our long and productive association with Los Alamos [and other labs],”” said UC President Richard C. Atkinson in a press release. “”I intend to do everything I can to address the issues that have been raised and to restore the confidence we have enjoyed for much of our 60-year association with the laboratories.””

    Despite promises of better business practices by the UC system back in January, the recent problems at Lawrence Berkeley have raised questions about the university’s higher-level management and its ability to maintain the country’s national laboratories efficiently and securely.

    Earlier this year, Senate Energy Committee Chair Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) announced that the University of California’s laboratory contract with the Department of Energy at Los Alamos National Laboratory will be open to competitive bidding after 60 years with the UC system.

    The University of California could thus lose management of the laboratory for the first time since its opening.

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