Leaks at the Lab

Former LANL auditor publishes tell-all book

July 16 will mark the 70th anniversary of Trinity, the code name for the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in the desert of New Mexico, about 35 miles east of Socorro.

It was a scientific experiment that would ultimately play a role in putting an end to World War II in Japan, with the development of the atom bomb.

It was also the moment that Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Manhattan Project would spontaneously appear, becoming household names across the country, if not the world.

Chuck Montaño, an auditor at the lab for more than three decades, is now commemorating the anniversary a few months prematurely by releasing his 348-page book, Los Alamos: A Whistleblower's Diary: Secret Colony, Hidden Truths.

The book takes a critical look at the lack of accountability at LANL, the nation's premier nuclear development facility, whose role has somewhat shifted these days, Montaño says, from creating nuclear warheads to now safeguarding them and keeping them up to snuff in a post-Cold War era.

While tales of espionage and government secrecy at the lab are by no means new fodder for journalists and authors alike, what separates Montaño's montage of accounts from those previously published is his homegrown perspective: He's a Hispanic who grew up in Santa Fe and who, as a child, long regarded the facility on "the Hill" as his ticket out.

He graduated from Santa Fe High School, attended New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas and eventually landed his first job at LANL in the late 1970s, where he was essentially a security guard who closely monitored the movement of nuclear materials, so much so that as an employee, he was continually checked for radioactive exposure.

Eventually, Montaño would work his way up to financial auditor and then, later, a computer systems analyst before winding down his career as a director of fraud and special audits for the New Mexico State Auditor, essentially a reassignment under the guise of the lab.

And over that time, Montaño said he would uncover countless instances of fraud and embezzlement among employees and supervisors while also bearing witness to the haphazard manner in which sensitive nuclear data were either downloaded and taken off the premises or simply went missing.

But when he would report the shortcomings or try to come up with simple solutions like having two people remove sensitive data from the lab's vaults instead of just one, nobody would listen, he claims.

And if they did listen, higher-ups would tell him to keep his "mouth shut" or face the consequences of losing his job, if that's what it would take to protect the image of the lab.

LANL is home to great scientists and engineers, all brought to you by and funnelled through the University of California, its operator. It's not a place where systems break down or where managerial malfeasance occurs, he contends in his paperback, which goes for $19.99 and is now available at Collected Works and Garcia Street Bookstore.

"If we can't trust the lab with the simple stuff, like holding employees accountable for stealing what amounts to taxpayers' money, then how can we trust them with securing and safeguarding dangerous stuff like nuclear warheads?" the 63-year-old poignantly asks in an interview on Tuesday.

Like a juror who has been involved in a very long trial, beginning in 1978 and ending in 2009, Montaño, no doubt, tells all. Except, of course, the amount of money he received in a settlement that resulted from his whistleblower's complaint, which he filed in 2005 and wasn't resolved until 2011, a year after his departure.

While a lack of financial accountability and oversight ranked high in his litany of abuses and taxpayer-funded waste, the centerpiece of his complaint was the alleged cover-up of the death of Richard James Burick, the lab's retired deputy director, who died in 2003 in what investigators called an apparent suicide.

While the Los Alamos Police Department concluded that Burick killed himself with a .44 caliber revolver, there are conspiracy theorists and investigators who believe that he was murdered inside his Dodge pickup in the parking lot of the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area and that LANL management stopped the investigation in its tracks.

Montaño is among them.

Steve Sandoval, a public affairs officer with the lab, declined to comment on Montano's book, as a matter of lab policy.

But for those who still read paperbacks in this world of online information, this much is certain: It's not an easy book to read, given the nature of the subject. It's full of government acronyms and scientific explanations. But then again, Montaño was an auditor, not a writer.

It's the personal stuff, of which there is plenty of, that makes the book interesting, like how he worked alongside his father, helping him to build some of the houses in White Rock, or how one of his best friends, a guy by the name of Mike, a fellow employee of the lab, struggled with his identity and ended up killing himself after a drunken-driving episode.

And there are great tidbits to be found on the lab's history.

"Much of the land needed to establish Los Alamos, which was founded in 1943 and subsequently populated with the finest minds in physical science and engineering, was obtained by force," Montaño writes. "Thirty-three homesteading families were displaced in the process. Nearby Pueblo lands were taken as well. The secret wartime effort code-named the Manhattan Project, followed by the fifty-year Cold War with the Soviet Union, enabled such abuses to occur in the name of national security."

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