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Attorney says man unable to get back on track despite being cleared in disk scandal

By Sue Vorenberg

The New Mexican

Back in 1983, when 20-year-old John Horne started work at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a machinist apprentice, he was on top of the world.

He loved his job and advanced through the ranks fast -- from a journeyman machinist making parts for nuclear weapons assemblies and tests to a position in the explosive testing division. Eventually, he transitioned into the job of experimentalist.

By 2004, he was well on his way to moving up from technician to the coveted job of staff member at the lab.

But then a clerical error, one that wasn't even his fault, exploded like a nuclear bomb in the middle of all his plans, he said.

And now, the trauma has spurred him to file a lawsuit in state District Court against Los Alamos National Security LLC, which operates the lab.

"I had worked more than 20 years, moving up the ladder, doing a job I genuinely loved," Horne said. "And that was just suddenly cut off from me."

On July 6, 2004, Horne came into the office and was told there were two pieces of classified material in his name that hadn't been accounted for.

He supposedly had created the material after a 2003 conference, when he was working with a new vault custodian who was charged with keeping track of that material, he said.

At the time, Horne had grabbed a stack of coded stickers from the custodian to put on the material once he finished creating disks from the conference. He was working at a remote site about 15 miles from the lab, so it was handy to have the stickers on hand, said his lawyer, Timothy L. Butler.

"John would obtain the stickers and bar codes and then apply them to the disks," Butler said. "But the custodian entered the bar codes into inventory before getting the disks, so the system acted like there was media attached to them before John had finished creating the material."

The custodian wasn't supposed to enter any of the bar code material into the computer system until after Horne returned with the disks in hand, Horne said.

And he returned with 10 disks and two unused stickers, he said.

The mistake went unnoticed until that fateful July, though, when a security investigation team started asking questions about where the missing disks were.

"Over a period of about two weeks, they realized there was nothing missing; it had been a clerical error," Horne said. "And over those same two weeks, we also concluded that there was nothing missing. But lab management continued to act as if we had done something wrong."

The scandal led to a complete lab shutdown for several weeks by then-Director Pete Nanos, starting July 16, at a cost that's been estimated at $367 million taxpayer dollars.

"We were basically told to go home and shut up, and I wasn't allowed back until January 2005," Horne said.

But while Horne was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, by both the lab and the FBI, he seemed to still be scapegoated by lab management, Horne said.

"I came back and hoped to go back to my old job, but I was told I had to prove myself again," Horne said. "I hadn't done anything wrong and I had to prove myself. I found that odd."

While he was gone, management had altered the structure of his department. When he returned "there didn't seem to be a place for me," Horne said.

Instead of continuing on his path to staff member, Horne ended up working on small projects, firearms tests and things of that nature, he said.

"It was a very hard time. I really didn't have any options outside of the lab, and I didn't have any options inside the lab," Horne said.

As the stigma continued, the stress made Horne physically sick. He used a lot of personal leave and was in and out of his job for several months, until he was asked to return for a new project, which was at best a parallel to his earlier career, he said.

And at that time, it became clear that Horne would never again advance or move forward in the career he had loved, Butler said.

"He was never going to get back on track," Butler said. "He was always looking over his shoulder."

Worse still, though, was the false impression left behind that somehow Horne would try to hurt his country by interfering with classified material, Horne said.

"That was despicable," Horne said. "I would never do anything against this country."

Horne took a voluntary Reduction in Force package in late 2007, and he spent the past year working for an oil company, he said.

That contract is over, though, and Horne is out of work.

The lawsuit names LANS LLC and not the University of California, which was managing the lab in 2004. It was filed Dec. 17 and seeks an unspecified amount of compensation for damages.

When asked why UC wasn't included, Butler said "there are tactical reasons for that."

Horne added that the problems continued after LANS took over the contract.

Horne's case also went through arbitration with the lab from Dec. 2007 to April 2008, said Jeff Berger, a lab spokesman.

Details of the arbitration are confidential, but Horne said the arbitrator found in his favor and determined no violation of procedure was committed or security infraction warranted.

Horne received about two weeks worth of lost pay and benefits from the decision, Butler said.

LANS hasn't yet received paperwork for the lawsuit, and Berger said he finds it odd that it names LANS, which didn't take over the lab's operational contract until June 1, 2006.

Still, it's hard to make further comment about it until LANS receives a copy of the suit, he added.

"The lab hasn't yet been served with the complaint by John Horne or his attorney," Berger said. "We didn't anticipate this suit because we tried to use binding arbitration to resolve his issues."

Contact Sue Vorenberg at
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Publication:The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, NM)
Date:Dec 23, 2008

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