By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Saparito's aggressive manner and whistle-blowing record branded him as a troublemaker at Palo Verde. He has been accused of being a gadfly who battles nuclear plants more for the limelight it brings him than for any concern for the public welfare.
Although Saparito is prone to self-aggrandizement (I am here to save the public from the Palo Verde time bomb," he solemnly intones), many of his claims have been verified by a Labor Department judge, who ruled in his favor on May 10. Perhaps a healthy ego is a necessary prerequisite for taking on a corporate giant like APS.
David Colapinto, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who has sued utilities on behalf of dozens of whistle-blowers, including Mitchell, says stories like Saparito's and Mitchell's show how the "system is broken."
Colapinto calls Saparito's victory, in which the judge ruled that APS discriminated against him, "remarkable." Representing himself, Saparito battled Palo Verde's stable of high-priced lawyers and won.
"It is a testament to the strength of his case that as an unemployed, journeyman technician, he was able to defeat a well-financed opponent represented by the largest law firm in Arizona."
While APS plans to appeal the Saparito case, new charges against the company continue to flow. APS recently settled a harassment complaint by Robert Singley, a security guard whose problems began after he discovered something odd about Palo Verde's security fence, which officials say can't be climbed. While it is true the fence can't be scaled, Singley discovered that it could be lifted out of the ground with ease, leaving a 14-inch gap at the bottom.
Instead of being rewarded for his observation, Singley was allegedly told to forget the incident. When he refused, Palo Verde management tried to fire him. He is now working in the mailroom at an APS building in Phoenix.
The terms of the settlement prohibit Singley from talking about his case, but a member of the plant's security-guard union says Singley was "given an unfair deal" by APS, and shouldn't have accepted the settlement.
"[APS] humiliated the guy when they should have been commending him. But what he pointed out would have cost a few bucks to fix," the union member says. "They intimidated him into settling for next to nothing instead of fighting it."
It is difficult to fault Singley for ending the matter as quickly as possible. His complaint is the most recent on a list that includes unresolved cases dating to 1987.
That was the year that Sarah Thomas, a plant technician, complained to her supervisors that the system set up to monitor the pumps and valves necessary to shut down Palo Verde's reactors wasn't adequate. "We couldn't tell if the pumps and valves--obviously, vital parts of the plant--were performing properly," Thomas says. "And Palo Verde wouldn't do anything about it."
Thomas called the NRC, and immediately began suffering the consequences. She received threatening telephone calls and her car was vandalized. But most chilling, she was reassigned to a new position--one that could mean higher radiation exposure than her old job. Although the exposure levels were still well within the allowable NRC levels, Thomas recoiled at her new assignment.
"Was the plant trying to send me a message with that extra radiation? I don't know," she says. "But I know it scared the heck out of me." A Labor Department judge, appointed to hear her claim of harassment, agreed in 1988 that she had been unfairly treated. He ordered that Thomas be given back pay and returned to her old job.
But because any ruling by a Labor judge is subject to review by the U.S. Secretary of Labor, Thomas hasn't yet gotten any satisfaction from APS. Her complaint has languished in Washington, D.C., for five years, awaiting a final ruling.
The Thomas case illustrates the inadequacies in the federal appeals system for whistle-blowers. The system was devised by Congress as a cost-effective way for whistle-blowers to seek satisfaction--the idea being that rather than filing a lawsuit and enduring years and millions of dollars worth of litigation, abused workers could appeal through Labor for a relatively affordable price.
But whistle-blowers' lawyer David Colapinto says the cure is sometimes worse than the sickness. "It is comical how long it takes to get through an appeal with the Labor Department," he says. "Even though the nuclear-regulatory system in this country is set up to depend on workers reporting problems, the time it takes for a worker to get satisfaction if they are harassed is very foreboding.
"Utilities know what an ordeal it is, and they know that the system is a major deterrent to whistle-blowers."
Unless whistle-blowers have the time and ability to represent themselves, they must hire lawyers. Then they must take their cases to the local office of the Labor Department, where they are almost always given a cursory examination and referred to a federal administrative-law judge.
Then, if the whistle-blower wins in a hearing before the judge, the case moves on to the Secretary of Labor for a final ruling. This final leg almost always takes four to five years, sometimes longer. Labor Department spokeswoman Marjorie Adamson says the delays are because of understaffing. "There are too many complaints and not enough people to study them," she says.