RICHLAND - In this tidy, all-American town where the pledge of allegiance starts the school day, Ed Bricker seemed like a perfect fit: a third-generation local, devoutly religious father of five, a dedicated worker with a penchant for perfectionism.
His employers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation north of town had an important, longstanding mission producing key materials for the nation's nuclear weapons - and Ed Bricker was eager to serve that cause.
But beneath the apple-pie veneer, Bricker's bosses were carrying out another kind of mission.
Recently uncovered internal memos, as well as a U.S. Department of Labor investigative report, show that security men employed by the Department of Energy's contractors at Hanford set out to get Bricker, simply because he talked to the press and Congress about how he was harassed for reporting safety problems to his bosses.
Officially called ``Special Item - Mole,'' the security operation was expressly intended to arrange the ``timely termination'' of Ed Bricker, to track and badger him, to isolate and discredit him.
When the Inspector General's office for the Department of Energy came to investigate Bricker's allegations of harassment, the IG's men ended up sharing sensitive information with those who wanted him out, assuring them no case would be brought against them, the internal memos show.
Not until the Labor Department investigated was there a resolution. In the newly released report, Labor investigator John Spear concluded that, in retaliation for Bricker's complaints, his rights were violated by contractor Rockwell International, and to a lesser degree by its successor, the Westinghouse Hanford Co., as well as the Department of Energy.
The report said the Energy Department failed to meet its legal obligation to thoroughly investigate any case of harassment reported to it.
And, the Labor investigation, which started last October, determined the mole operation ``had the effect of stirring management and employee sentiment against Bricker as evidenced by his being sent to a
psychologist against his will, unfavorable performance appraisals, and general workplace hostility.''
``I was a good, safe employee that followed procedures,'' says Bricker, who still works at Hanford. ``They didn't want anybody that followed procedures.''
Bricker and others close to the case say the tactics used against him help explain how managers at the nation's largest nuclear-weapons complex were able to conceal, in some cases for decades, crucial information about unsafe practices there.
Earlier this month, an Energy Department contractor made public a study showing for the first time that radiation releases during the 1940s were large enough that they could have caused cancer among nearby residents. The department hid those releases for more than 40 years until a public-interest group forced the government to disclose them.
Other revelations - about leaking waste-storage tanks in the 1970s, dangerously sloppy procedures and aging equipment in the '80s - have come largely through such watchdog groups and the news media. The few Hanford employees who took their safety concerns outside the 560-square-mile federal complex have complained to congressional investigators and others that they were harassed by their supervisors and shunned by their fellow workers.
Last year, Westinghouse agreed to pay sizable monetary settlements to quality-assurance workers Casey Ruud and Jim Simpkin after congressional investigators found they were harassed for reporting major safety problems inside Hanford. The plants they complained about were closed.
Now in the Bricker case, the once-secret memorandums and the Labor Department report provide the most thoroughly documented example of how a DOE contractor tried to muzzle an outspoken employee.
Former Rockwell public-relations chief Jerry Gilliland says his company overreacted because Bricker went against a prevailing ``Hanford attitude'' that promotes secrecy and paranoia.
``It's an attitude that we know better than other people. We've run this place for a long time. There is a real resistance to new ideas,'' says Gilliland, now a spokesman for the state Department of Ecology.
The documents in the Bricker case, first obtained by the Labor Department and by a private, non-profit organization called the Government Accountability Project, tell how the harassment campaign was planned and executed beginning in January 1987.
Bricker's bosses say in memos that they believed he was feeding ongoing criticism of Hanford by leaking safety information to the press and Congress during 1986 and 1987. They viewed him as a mole who had burrowed into their operation and, like any pest, had to be eliminated.
Giving new meaning to the notion of espionage, one fellow employee called Bricker a ``spy for the government'' because he went to Congress.
A former Rockwell personnel manager - who tried to get Bricker laid off - told a Labor Department investigator last January, ``I'm surprised one of the guys hasn't killed him by now.''
Even Energy Department officials now admit that the plutonium plant where Ed Bricker was hired in 1983 was a mess. The 30-year-old factory was run down, corrupted by years of neglect and misuse.
The factory - called Plutonium Finishing Plant but code-named Z plant - was shut down in the mid-1970s because the government didn't need more plutonium, but was restarted in 1983 when the Reagan administration began building up the arms supply.
Bricker was among the first workers hired for the restart, and, like the others, he was a greenhorn. Veterans weren't hired back because their work in the past had been so sloppy, officials would later admit.
A true believer in nuclear weapons as a deterrent, Bricker had worked at the reservation in waste storage but quit to get a college education. At Z plant, he quickly earned a reputation for standing up to management, and was elected shop steward for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union.
Then he began to notice the safety conditions.
Plutonium is one of the most dangerous radioactive substances on earth. Inhaling a tiny speck can cause cancer. A large volume assembled in one place can set off an uncontrollable nuclear chain reaction that causes an intense flash of radiation and in some cases an explosion.
Bricker and other workers found that factory blueprints and operating procedures were so out-of-date that new pipes and valves were not shown on them. If an uninformed worker misrouted plutonium slurry inside these pipes and valves, the dreaded explosion could follow. Close calls were numerous.
Bricker also saw that workers handling plutonium in protective enclosed containers were looking through windows so etched and stained that visibility was nearly impossible.
When he complained about this and the use of uncertified operators in the factory control room, management and some fellow employees turned on him. Although he had been a candidate for management when he first arrived on the job, he became known as a nitpicker and a nitwit. Said one manager to him, ``I've got your number: You are a crybaby.''
In 1984, at his request, Bricker was transferred to Hanford's tank farms for storing nuclear waste. At Z plant, the pressure to produce plutonium continued.
When Rockwell auditor Ruud inspected the plant in 1985 and 1986, he found that safety violations were not being corrected. Ruud recommended the plant be shut down, but Rockwell ignored Ruud's audits, and DOE officials didn't even read them. Only when they were leaked to the press in October 1986 was the plant shut down.
As Bricker read stories about Ruud, he wondered whether he, too, should have gone to the press. He had secretly contacted a congressional investigator in March 1986, but had otherwise followed company rules by reporting his complaints internally.
Even so, he was undermined and resented.
``It became readily apparent that he was the type of guy who would call the outside press and TV when things didn't go his way. He had his nose in everybody's business,'' fellow worker James Brooks later told a Labor Department investigator. ``He nickeled and dimed his way around.''
Bricker didn't see his complaints as nickel-and-dime. ``I was honestly concerned that these facilities were being mismanaged, and I always was sticking my neck out. I thought I was doing it for my country, getting this rogue agency reined in.''
When, also in March 1986, Bricker left a safety complaint on a phone message for DOE Hanford manager Mike Lawrence, Lawrence responded by calling the president of Rockwell. By regulation, safety complaints are supposed to be kept confidential, but Lawrence's call tipped off the company to Bricker.
In August that year, Bricker was ordered to do work that would require safety shoes. Managers knew someone had stolen his shoes, but he was sent home without pay for not having them. The next day the job was canceled because no one else had their shoes, either.
In October, Bricker was subjected to the first in a series of psychological exams. Under threat of losing his job, Rockwell ordered him to a company psychologist because he walked out of a meeting. The Labor Department report says the order was wholly unjustified.
In January 1987, an intermediary arranged for a Seattle Times reporter to contact Bricker. Later, an ABC-TV crew interviewed him, too.
``It was pretty apparent after I spoke out the first time that I would never be forgiven for what I had done; for taking things out from under the Hanford cloak,'' he says.
BETRAYED BY FRIENDS
Bricker didn't know then how quickly the operation to get rid of him began.
The day after Bricker talked with The Times, he told the reporter who interviewed him he was sure Rockwell had already found out about it. He was hearing weird noises on his phone and thought cars were following him.
The reporter said Rockwell couldn't know because no officials had been contacted and no story had been published.
The reporter was wrong.
The memos, supported by additional information from interviews, describe in great detail what happened:
On the morning of Jan. 16, 1987, Rockwell General Manager Clegg Crawford was 25 minutes late for a meeting. He and other top managers had been discussing their schedule for restarting Z plant, which had been closed for three months.
Crawford was preparing to lose his job in six months because his company had lost a bidding war with Westinghouse for a $4 billion extension of the Hanford contract. He blamed, in part, the press reports of safety problems. To him, restarting Z plant was a matter of pride and honor.
As he headed out of his office, Crawford was hailed by his assistant plant manager, John Fulton, who had news that stopped him in his tracks.
Fulton said a plutonium plant worker named William Cook had called him the night before and told him a Times reporter had telephoned him asking new questions about safety at the plant. Cook, who Bricker thought was a trusted friend, told the plant manager that Bricker had directed the reporter to him.
Cook now refuses to comment, and Crawford says he doesn't remember details of what he said that day, but the internal memos are very clear about it.
Crawford, Fulton and two other Rockwell officials hurriedly convened a meeting where Crawford minced no words. Turning to Whitney Walker, one of his top security men, he ordered an ``action plan'' that would result in the ``timely termination'' of Bricker. Walker said he suspected Bricker was the employee who had been feeding information to the newspaper since sometime in 1986.
In the memo where he gave ``Special Item - Mole'' its name, Walker says he will ``work a plan that will identify'' Bricker as the person who had been leaking to the newspaper, then lay out what to do.
Walker was former chief of the Hanford security patrol, a government-financed private police force of more than 300 officers. The patrol, armed with machine guns, surveillance equipment and helicopters, had responsibility to protect Hanford from spies, terrorists and criminals. The contract doesn't mention tracking down whistle-blowers, but Walker, who no longer works for Rockwell, insists to this day that the operation was legitimate.
``He had caused problems. He had violated company policy regarding contacting the media,'' Walker says.
The memos go on to describe how Walker's security men fanned out to the homes of employees who knew about Bricker. One was another trusted friend, Jack Manis, who was invited by Bricker to watch the taping of the interview by ABC-TV. Manis also reported what Bricker had done.
In one memo, Rockwell officials tell how they asked a worker (whose name is deleted) to pretend to be a whistle-blower himself, to meet with Bricker and the newspaper reporter to ``see first-hand what their objectives were and what were the sources of information they were utilizing.'' The man turned down the suggestion, but agreed to contact them if he heard anything more about Bricker.
Why friends would turn on Bricker is partly a result of the ``Hanford attitude'' described by Gilliland and partly a factor of his personality.
Bricker is a bright and conscientious worker, but he is also a perfectionist who rattled his detractors and pestered his friends to sign statements supporting him. Given to bombast, he bragged to friends
that he had reported plant safety problems to a congressional investigator, even though he was supposed to keep the matter secret. When Rockwell public-relations people asked him about his press interviews in January 1987, he told them ``all hell is going to break loose.''
In memos, P-R man Gilliland and his staff reflected over what Bricker might have said to the press, and girded for the upcoming calls for interviews. They also listed what the company could do:
Reprimand Bricker for speaking to the press without permission, investigate whether he leaked documents to the press or issue a brief statement to the news media saying most of his allegations were about other employees, and hence a personnel matter that could not be discussed.
The last idea on the list was investigating Bricker's allegations to see if they were true.
Gilliland says he's not surprised there was an investigation of Bricker instead - ``they were always looking for spies and that kind of thing, anybody who was talking outside of the site'' - but he's shocked that they intended to fire him. Gilliland says he was not informed about that, ``but, then again, there was a lot they didn't tell me about.''
The effort to break Bricker continued over the next few weeks as investigators requested his medical records. He was, in fact, having problems. Doctors determined that Bricker had a skin ailment brought on by stress, and ordered him not to work around chemicals. Fellow workers thought he was being coddled, and further isolated him.
Six months earlier, the company had tried unsuccessfully to get Bricker ousted as union steward. But this time, with word out that he had talked to the press, management encouraged the union to hold another election; Bricker was rejected.
Bricker's co-worker Manis recalls that Bricker had a way of ``bringing problems on himself.'' After telling fellow employees that he was blowing the whistle on plant problems, for instance, Bricker had the company call an ambulance because he was suffering chest pains brought on, he said, because one of the workers had threatened him.
Employees noticed that Bricker removed an envelope from his locker on the way to the ambulance. The package contained only personal papers and news clippings, but employees reported it to Rockwell officials, who alerted the security people. In memos revealing just how close their surveillance of him was, security even reported who Bricker turned it over to.
As an afterthought, a Rockwell official was assigned to a ``low-keyed'' investigation of Bricker's safety allegations, and he concluded that they had all been resolved. Bricker was called into a manager's office and chastised for talking to the press without permission.
All this happened before the first story about Bricker's case appeared in The Times on March 1, 1987. Copies of the story were distributed around the plants, and Bricker's co-workers badgered him, mainly about whether he went to the press or whether the press came to him.
Gordon Morris, an employee at Hanford for four decades and one of the most senior employees at the time, says he had never seen the kind of harassment that managers put Bricker through in the next year.
``At safety meetings, they were really nasty to him. They bird-dogged him on the job. They went out of their way to catch him screwing up,'' Morris says. ``They treated him terrible.''
`STOP' ORDER IGNORED
Records show that even when Westinghouse Hanford took over for Rockwell in mid-1987 and upper-level officials ordered a halt to the mole operation because they worried it might violate Bricker's rights, mid-level managers and employees retained from Rockwell continued to track him.
Westinghouse investigations manager Chris Jensen said in a memo that the company kept a Bricker file, though it didn't ``officially exist in our records system.''
When Bricker wrote a letter to the editor of his local newspaper in January 1988, Westinghouse opened a new probe of his harassment allegations. But according to Bricker's lawyer, Tom Carpenter, it was aimed at hurting Bricker, not helping him. Bricker's supporters said they felt intimidated by questions from Westinghouse security. Some co-workers later told the Labor Department investigator they were harassed for standing up for Bricker or associating with him.
By March 1989, Westinghouse had collected 11 volumes of information on Bricker. Among the papers were memos characterizing another worker as a person who ``thinks like Bricker.'' Another was simply ``a guy who talks to Ed.''
HELP FROM OUTSIDE
In May 1989, the Westinghouse investigator who was collecting information on Bricker met with Dick Young, manager of the DOE Inspector General's office in Richland. At Bricker's request in late 1988, the IG's office, a separate government investigative agency, had begun looking into his case.
Bright Bowe, the Westinghouse investigator, candidly says in a memo that Young told him the IG's office had wrapped up the case and: ``While he was saying this he was holding his thumbs down.''
He added: ``Young said the agents were discounting Mr. Bricker's claims and that would be reflected in their report.''
Young has never told Bricker's attorney that the probe was over, or what the results were. Young did tell Carpenter that the IG investigation would be limited to allegations that Bricker was harassed for talking to the IG, that it wouldn't cover prior acts.
Carpenter says it is clear that the IG's office didn't look at all the evidence. And the Labor Department probe showed that the IG's office even asked Bricker's co-worker Manis if he would be wired with a microphone to secretly tape record a conversation with Bricker.
Carpenter has filed a complaint with the IG's headquarters, alleging that the local office violated federal regulations instructing each investigator to be an ``unbiased, impartial collector of facts.''
A spokesperson at headquarters would not comment, saying the Bricker case has not been closed. Young and Bowe also refused to comment.
Eventually, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) helped Bricker force the DOE to call for the Labor Department probe. The GAP also used the federal Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act to force DOE and its contractors to turn over the internal memos.
Labor investigator John Spear recommended some monetary compensation to Bricker, and some expunging of his personnel record, but GAP is negotiating a larger settlement and future protection for Bricker.
Carpenter, who also represents the Government Accountability Project, says the message in the case is that there needs to be independent government oversight of the DOE because ``people aren't getting protected.''
A report released last week by a major Energy Department inspection team may bolster his case. The report says Hanford still doesn't offer enough protection for whistle-blowers.
For Bricker, the battle has become a personal, exhausting one.
Says Michael Cain, a co-worker: ``I believe Bricker was originally very well-intentioned, and tried to do the right thing, but they painted him into a corner and now, to get out, he has to fight and scratch.''