Welding Whistleblower

By Daniel Pulliam

A whistleblower's complaint that unqualified Navy welders had inadequately soldered catapult hydraulic piping systems on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk was substantiated in an Office of Special Counsel report to President Bush.

The catapults are used to hoist aircraft from the carrier's deck into the air, and a failure of the hydraulic system could result in the loss of the aircraft and the possible death of the pilot and others.

By sending the report to the president, Special Counsel Scott Bloch confirmed that the Navy's second report on allegations first made by whistleblower Kristin Shott in November 2001 is complete and reasonable.

The Navy inquiry found the defective welding would not likely cause catastrophic failure, but the report did not rule out the possibility, according to OSC.

The investigation by the Navy found that an integrated electronics systems mechanic continued to weld even after his supervisor knew that his certification had expired. The report also found that the Naval Air Depot's certification tracking system was deficient.

The Navy repaired the problems with the Kitty Hawk's catapult in November, and the depot is working to improve its training and recertification program. The mechanic was disciplined with a three-day suspension. His supervisor - who told investigators that he did not assign mechanics soldering jobs - was going to be demoted, but his apology prompted a delay and a 5- to 14-day suspension is likely.

The faulty welding found on the USS Kitty Hawk is related to the faulty welding found on five other aircraft carriers in a February 2003 investigation instigated by Shott's disclosure to OSC.

Shott, a Navy welder with 16 years of experience, told OSC that other craftsmen from a variety of trades at the Naval Air Depot North Island in San Diego, Calif., work with lapsed certifications, but this was not proven in the subsequent investigation.

Shott told Government Executive that she is pleased that military personnel are safer, but she said the disciplinary actions lacked severity.

After going to the OSC with her complaint, Shott, who trained by welding nuclear submarines, was transferred and given a job welding cargo vans. According to Shott's lawyer, OSC has written a letter stating she was improperly removed from her job and denied a promotion.

"I destroyed my career to ensure that military personnel were safe," Shott said. "I will never go whistleblower again."

Voting Matters

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia dismissed a lawsuit against Vice President Dick Cheney that sought to make the records of his energy task force public.

The lawsuit, filed by advocacy groups Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club under the Federal Advisory Committee Act open meetings law, sought access to the records of the National Energy Policy Development Group.

Because the court in a unanimous decision concluded that the task force consisted solely of government officials, it is exempt from FACA requirements, and the lawsuit was dismissed.

The task force, established on Jan. 29, 2001, by President Bush within the Executive Office of the President, was formed to develop a national energy policy. Cheney was appointed chairman; the committee consisted solely of federal officials, according to administration personnel.

Judicial Watch argued that nonfederal employees participated in the private meetings as if they were members and that should bring the task force under FACA requirements. The Sierra Club alleged that nongovernment personnel attended the task force's subcommittee meetings, making them committee members.

The Bush administration argued that applying FACA rules to the task force that consisted of federal officials would infringe on the president's constitutional authority to recommend legislation and seek the opinions of department heads privately.

Circuit Judge A. Raymond Randolph wrote that the membership of a committee can be determined by accounting for the voting members appointed by the president, and that the presence of nongovernment officials does not make them members. Randolph cited the necessity for a separation of powers that would allow the executive branch to make decisions and not be hampered by rules established by Congress.

"The outsider might make an important presentation, he might be persuasive, the information he provides might affect the committee's judgment," Randolph wrote. "But having neither a vote nor a veto over the advice the committee renders to the president, he is no more a member of the committee than the aides who accompany congressmen or Cabinet officers to committee meetings."

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a statement that the court's ruling does not have any basis in the open meetings law and is contrary to the law's intent.

"[T]he public will simply have to take the word of the government that no outsiders are improperly influencing the decisions of their government," Fitton said. "Today's decision means that now the public may never know the truth about how these policies were formulated."

Carl Pope, Sierra Club executive director, said in a statement that "the Bush administration has succeeded in locking the public out and letting industry and corporate special interests call the shots."

Sierra Club and Judicial Watch, Inc. v. Richard B. Cheney, Vice President of the United States, et al., 02-5354, May 10, 2005.