Accuracy in Media

Earlier this year, AIM reported on a major scandal at the nation’s premier nuclear weapons laboratory in New Mexico. The scandal involved allegations that the lab had “lost” nearly three million dollars worth of government property since 1999. Two security officials, hired to improve the lab’s ability to investigate such problems, then uncovered widespread abuse of government purchasing cards. They were stonewalled by lab management and eventually fired.

Media attention to the scandal led to the resignation of the lab director and several other senior officials. It prompted the U.S. Energy Department to open up bidding for the lab’s management contract. Since its establishment in 1943, the lab has been managed by the University of California. But the University has come under increasing criticism in recent years for its inability to enforce good management practices on the lab.

The poster girl for the scandal was a lab employee who allegedly purchased a used Ford Mustang for nearly $20,000. She subsequently spent an additional $10,000 for high-performance parts and accessories. The purchases were made using a government credit card. Internal lab documents, leaked to the media, showed that the lab employee had successfully completed the transaction. The recently hired security officials claimed that the lab knew about the purchase, but had taken no action. Once the story broke, the employee was placed on paid administrative leave.

Now, however, the lab says that the Mustang purchase never happened. Lab officials recently announced that the employee may have been a victim of fraud herself. They allege that the owners of the Mustang shop tricked her into thinking she was buying scientific equipment. “It was all a mix-up,” they said. They blamed it on the transfer of a telephone number from an equipment supplier to the Mustang dealership.

Lab officials said that the Mustang dealer “through a series of phone calls and faxes” charged the car and the high-performance parts to the lab’s credit card. The employee said she thought she was buying “pressure transducers.” The lab says it has a copy of an invoice listing scientific equipment she thought she was buying. The case had been referred to the FBI and agents visited the dealer. AIM spoke with the owner who confirmed that the FBI had visited him, but the FBI requested that he not discuss the case with the media.

Not surprisingly, the Mustang dealer vehemently denies the lab’s allegation against him. He said that she called “several times;” while she was on hold she would have heard a message advertising the dealership. He told local reporters, “She wanted a car that was hopped and had all kind of performance parts.” “She knew she was dealing with a Mustang company.” Lab officials declared her exoneration on this charge to be a validation of the lab’s “system of investigation.” But government watchdogs charged that the lab’s handling of this case demonstrates that “the culture of deceit there hasn’t changed at all.”

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