Kempner: 67-year-old whistle blower in DeKalb case ‘just did my job’

Some people just can’t let stuff go.

It sounds like it was that way for Deborah Cook, who at 67 may finally get some satisfaction – and a piece of a $4.6 million settlement – after making sure the feds held a DeKalb County company responsible for alleged wrongdoing.

Cook told me she just couldn’t stomach what she believed was a company skirting accountability for its actions.

Tucker-based Energy & Process Corporation, which supplies materials to the nuclear industry, was accused of failing to follow quality procedures and supplying defective steel rebar for a U.S. Department of Energy nuclear project.

Cook helped uncover the alleged problems a decade ago, soon after she was hired as a procurement specialist for another company that was the prime contractor at the facility. E&P denied wrongdoing, as it still does today, even after agreeing to pay $4.6 million in a settlement with the federal government.

“I felt like the company should not have gotten off without something that penalized them for what they did,” Cook told me.

“I couldn’t abide with the fact that nothing happened.”

But Cook said she thinks her efforts also came at a price.

She suspects the initial whistle-blower lawsuit she filed in part on behalf of the United States of America has prevented her from landing another job. She’s been out of work since 2014.

“I had planned on retiring at 70, but all that changed.”

She told me she’d rather have worked than get the potential payout.

Bi-partisan boom

There's been a bi-partisan boom in new protections for whistle blowers who turn in employers and others who illegally put people or tax dollars at risk. About 20 new statutes have been created in recent years, according to Louis Clark, who leads the nonprofit Government Accountability Project. And President Trump just created an office at the Department of Veterans Affairs that is supposed to protect whistle blowers.

Most of the measures try to limit harm to people who do the right thing.

But under some circumstances, whistle blowers who uncover ripoffs of government money can get dibs on a portion of what’s eventually recovered. It can make them rich.

Just don’t count on it.

“I could think of better and easier ways to make money,” Clark told me.

Cases can take years and may never succeed, he said. “Meanwhile they might well be out of a job for years and years and years.”

Getting hired on elsewhere can be tough. Maybe some potential employers don’t want to bother trying to sort out who’s a gold-digging troublemaker versus a person of integrity showing the kind of guts and character that we’re all supposed to value. And maybe a few rare employers actually have something to hide and don’t want a knight in shining armor galloping around.

Ensuring quality

For decades Cook worked for contractors, often on federal government projects, helping to ensure that subcontractors and vendors supplied quality equipment just as specified in contracts.

Many of the projects involved hairy stuff we want handled correctly. Like nuclear waste, Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals.

In 2007, she was hired as a procurement and subcontract specialist for Shaw, the primary contractor building a multi-billion nuclear reprocessing facility for the DOE at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina near Augusta. The MOX plant is slated to convert military-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear power plants.

According to her suit, Cook grew concerned about whether material from E&P met contractual standards. The company was responsible for providing thousands of tons of steel rebar that met special nuclear quality assurance standards and that the government was paying a premium for.

So Cook did some investigating. She’d call a fabrication plant at random times, hoping to determine whether E&P inspectors were on site as they were supposed to be, according to her suit.

“I just did my job,” she told me.

In early 2008, one of the bars snapped as a worker on the site was pounding it into place, her suit states. The incident sparked a review by the DOE and others at the site.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, which later joined Cook in a suit she brought against E&P, the company allegedly “failed to perform most of the necessary quality assurance measures, while falsely certifying that those requirements had been met.” The lawsuit further alleged that one-third of the rebar supplied by E&P and used in the construction was found to be defective. E&P subsequently replaced some of the defective rebar.

Avoiding distraction

The company denies it did anything wrong and said the material it supplied complied with applicable standards.

Denise Vaughn, a spokeswoman for the company, wrote that the firm settled “to avoid future distraction and the cost of lengthy litigation.”

Cook, who had lived in Georgia but now lives near Houston, told me her own employer backed her efforts to dig into the rebar issue and gave her a commendation and a $2,500 bonus for her efforts.

But she said she later grew frustrated when a federal probe into the issues lingered for years without conclusion. More than five years after the incidents, she filed suit. She told me she hoped it would spur the federal government to take action.

One of her attorneys, Chuck Gabriel, said Cook’s legal team advised her to sue her own employer because they felt there were indications of its culpability. The DOJ apparently didn’t agree, and Shaw was dropped from the case.

I imagine its initial inclusion left a bad taste. By then, Cook had already left the company.

She told me the potential to win money was a factor in her bringing the case, but not the primary one. (How much she’ll get hasn’t been determined yet.)

“Doing government work as long as I had, the rule is the rule is the rule. And I’m not going to jail for anybody,” she said. “You don’t cut corners.”

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