Trial opens in suit filed by fired LANL employee
Trial began Thursday in a case filed by a longtime Los Alamos National Laboratory employee who says he was forced to resign or be fired after 22 years because of unsubstantiated allegations of wrongdoing related to his position as a Jemez Mountains Electric Co-op trustee.
When John Tapia filed his complaint for breach of implied employment contract and defamation in 2016, he said the company that managed the laboratory at the time contemplated giving him progressive discipline instead of termination. But, he said, Los Alamos National Security LLC decided against that because managers worried that if the published fraud allegations related to the co-op were substantiated it would make the company look bad and jeopardize its contract with the U.S. Department of Energy.
An attorney for the company said Thursday that Tapia’s departure had nothing to do with the allegations of fraud at the co-op, which the co-op ultimately determined were mistakes that did not rise to the level of fraud. The attorney said the personnel action was based on Tapia’s violation of multiple policies prohibiting him from using government-owned resources for other purposes and for pressing a subordinate to help him with co-op work.
Tapia’s attorney, David F. Cunningham, during his opening statement in the jury trial focused on Tapia’s long service to the laboratory, his historically positive performance reviews, his involvement in the National Guard and his public service to the community.
Cunningham said Tapia, who was paid about $190,000 a year as a high-level manager in charge of overseeing more than $1 billion worth of government-owned equipment, seeks an unspecified amount of back and future pay, as well as punitive damages.
Jaclyn M. McLean, attorney for the Los Alamos National Security LLC — which no longer has the lab management contract — said during her opening statement that Tapia signed a statement acknowledging that he and a subordinate had documents related to the electric co-op on their work computers and occasionally discussed co-op business on lab time.
McLean said company policy allowed employees “incidental use” of their work phones and computers to communicate with family members or check news but that such use is expressly prohibited when an employee is engaged in a specific outside activity, such as serving as an elected official.
McLean said Tapia signed a form acknowledging that policy three years in a row but continued to violate the policy.
Even if Tapia’s claim that the subordinate was a long-time friend who volunteered to help with co-op business was true, McLean said, the power imbalance between them made such an arrangement unfair.
McLean said the company did not make the decision to terminate Tapia lightly, but after much discussion determined that as a high-ranking manager in charge of 130 employees his violation of company policies would have made it difficult for him to engender trust and enforce those same polices on staff members.
The trial is scheduled to resume Friday and continue through next week.