Snitch 

Michelle Doggett thought she was doing the right thing by exposing fraud at Lawrence Livermore Lab. But in a town where work and family are one, there's a word for people like her.

Every time Michelle Doggett made the 35-mile trek to Oakland from Livermore for a court hearing, the weather gods served up the same entrée: dreary and overcast. This morning was no different: cold, cloudy, crappy. Before the 41-year-old mother of three and her husband Jim headed west on I-580, they had to drop their youngest child off at Almond School, an elementary school popular among employees of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory because it also houses a daycare center for the kids of lab workers. Doggett estimates that 70 to 80 percent of the kids who attend Almond have parents who work at the lab. Her daughter Alexis (Lex for short) is one of them. Jim Doggett works at the lab, has for eighteen years. And Michelle worked there herself until four years ago, when she just couldn't handle being treated as a traitor anymore.

Driving along, Michelle explained to Lex that mom and dad might not be done in time to pick her up from school, but her older brother would be there for her.

"Is this another lawsuit thing?" asked the blonde ten-year-old, a little miffed.

Indeed, it was. Michelle Doggett is suing her former employer, Livermore Lab, claiming it punished her for bringing financial improprieties to light. At the time, her whistleblower retaliation lawsuit was entering its third year with no end in sight, and seeking vindication had become Doggett's full-time job. Lex nicknamed her mom "Busybody," because she always seemed busy reading court documents and deposition transcripts, or heading to and from court.

Lex had a follow-up question for Michelle: "Mom, what's a whistleblower?" she asked. "Because my friends say it's just a snitch."

Snitch. The word stung. "See, Jim?" Doggett said, turning to her husband. "Out of the mouths of babes speaks the truth that everyone else just thinks."

Livermore is a company town, and that company is the lab. When you live and work in such an environment, it isn't always easy to do what you think is right. To come forward with what you consider wrongdoing by your employer puts you at risk of being labeled, not merely by co-workers but by your neighbors, and your kids' friends. Michelle thought she'd done the right thing, and here her little girl was asking if she was a snitch.

Granted, the city has grown up a lot since the University of California-managed weapons lab opened for business a half-century ago and, as the legend goes, its leaders all lived on the same street. But the lab is still Livermore's biggest employer with 8,100 workers, most of whom still live here or in the surrounding valley.

Both Michelle and her husband, Jim, are homegrown lab rats. She went to Livermore High; he to Granada. They met at the lab, where both worked in procurement (she was his secretary). Jim's father and stepmother also worked there for decades. Jim points out that his dad and his sister used to work in the same trailer where he works now. Relationships are entangled like that at the lab. At one point during Jim's tenure, his boss was married to Michelle's supervisor.

It's like a big family at the lab. And like any family, it is occasionally dysfunctional, and it has its secrets. Michelle remembers her former lab boss warning her once not to go outside the lab "family," as he called it, with embarrassing information. The same boss also happened to be a close family friend of Jim's parents, who regularly attended their annual Christmas parties.

It was within this close-knit, insular atmosphere that Michelle Doggett chose to blow the whistle. The lab's own policies encourage employees who see wrongdoing to come forward, and it seemed appropriate to expose waste and outright fraud going on under her nose. That was six long years ago. Now, as her trial date moves closer, a well-known congressman is weighing in on her behalf, even as the lab attempts to get her suit thrown out of court (see sidebar below).

Doggett's case is one of a handful of whistleblower-retaliation lawsuits now pending against Livermore lab and the University of California, which also manages Lawrence Berkeley lab and New Mexico's Los Alamos lab under a contract with the US Department of Energy. Those cases have been overshadowed in Congress and the press recently by the troubles at Los Alamos, where two in-house investigators were fired after they uncovered widespread credit card and spending fraud. US Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico is the latest high-profile politician to criticize the university over its mismanagement of Los Alamos. UC has exclusively managed all three labs for more than a half-century, and Domenici wants to invite new bidders to compete for the contract when the university's deal expires in September 2005.

Earlier this year, with critics calling for the end of UC's contract for Los Alamos, and perhaps even the other labs, Ron Darling, the university's interim vice president for lab management, tapped a familiar name to advise him on lab issues. When Doggett heard about the appointment, she couldn't believe her ears: Darling was bringing on Robert Kuckuck, Livermore's former second-in-command -- the very same man, she says, who did almost nothing to protect her after she came to him for help.

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