LANL critic wins partial victory in District Court

By ROGER SNODGRASS (roger@lamonitor.com), Monitor Assistant Editor
Los Alamos Monitor
Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Los Alamos National Laboratory lost a key ruling in district court earlier this month. Judge James B. Hall found that the lab was not in compliance with a public information law and ruled that plaintiff Chris Mechels was entitled to be compensated for his legal fees. Last week the lab appealed the ruling, claiming on the contrary that the laboratory was responsive and that the law "does not provide for an award of costs and attorneys’ fees based solely on untimeliness."

An underlying significance of the case is that the laboratory did not contest the relevance of a California law applicable to the laboratory’s operation in New Mexico.

Earlier this year, Mechels – a resident of Tesuque, former laboratory employee and frequent critic of the policies and procedures of the laboratory – had sued the laboratory for excessive delays in providing public records. The circumstances under dispute began in December 2001, when Mechels requested a list of documents relating to the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation. Three additional requests were filed the following June. Two of the requests sought public information on another subject, related to a pair of laboratory supercomputers, known as "Blue Mountain," and "ASCI Q." The last request on June 28, 2002, asked for additional information on the foundation and its granting procedures. Mechels said late last week that he was motivated to pursue the case to inspire others including the media to force the laboratory to become more accountable.

"This is not ‘me versus the lab;’ this is ‘the public versus the laboratory,’" he said.

Because the University of California operates LANL, it is subject to a specific law governing the availability of public records. The California Public Records Act (CPRA), as quoted in Mechels’ original complaint, states that the agency has 10 days after a request is made to inform the petitioner if the information is available and if it can be disclosed, and provide a rationale for the determination. While some situations might warrant an extension, "No notice shall specify a date that would result in an extension for more than 14 days," says the law.

In October 24, 2002, eleven months after he initiated the search, the laboratory notified Mechels that it had identified 2,000 pages of information related to his request about the LANL foundation. Two more months went by before he received some of the documents. Not until April, did he receive another installment of documents related to his request about the laboratory supercomputers, although he complained additionally about the heavy redaction, or black out, of relevant information, and the failure to provide numerous other documents he had requested about the foundation.

On the matter of redaction, Judge Hall was unable to make a ruling concerning relevance without "taking evidence," which would require a more extended examination of the documents.

Mechels’ pursuit of the LANL foundation is based on a belief that it has an ulterior and illegal purpose. "While claiming to be independent," he said, "you’ll find they are totally controlled by the university and LANL, but LANL is forbidden to give away money."

A laboratory spokesperson referred questions to the LANL Foundation, but several calls this morning were not answered.

Having worked in the sumpercomputer area at LANL from 1980-83, and then again from 1986-94, Mechels also has reason to believe the large expenditures the laboratory has spent on Blue Mountain and ASCI Q would be difficult to defend if all the information about their procurement and performance were available for public scrutiny.

The computers were justified by the laboratory as an essential component in certifying the reliability of the nuclear stockpile, after testing was banned, but Mechels doubts that the supercomputers are being used for what they were intended to do.

"There’s a lot of fancy graphics, but is it related to weapons work?" he asked.

Laboratory spokesperson Jim Danneskiold responded, "Blue mountain and Q have provided a major integrating capability for the stockpile stewardship program."

On a larger issue, Mechels said he selected his information requests carefully for the purpose of testing the law. He chose to ask about aspects of the laboratory’s business that would not raise security or personal privacy concerns.

"The essential long-term problem with Los Alamos is that they are above oversight," he said. "It is time to be responsible to the public and the country, and part of that is not only talking about openness but actually beginning to be open."

Mechels has been a formal and informal critic of the laboratory for at least a decade. He writes numerous letters to the editors of local newspapers and the public forum on the laboratory’s web site, and is a regular detractor during public comment periods in public meetings related to the laboratory.

He represented six individuals during the controversial Reduction in Force of the early 90’s, and prevailed in two of the cases. He played a role in having the California Education Employer Relations Act modified to permit Los Alamos employees to organize unions and bargain collectively. He was one of the first public defenders of Wen Ho Lee, and has been a constant advocate of worker safety and whistleblower rights.