CRITICAL

AT PALO VERDE, IT'S OPEN SEASON ON WHISTLE-BLOWERS

Leo Norton, an inspector general investigator, says the NRC has interviewed 25 whistle-blowers, including several at Palo Verde, and will release a report making recommendations on how the agency's handling of worker concerns can be improved. The report is due in June.

Mitchell says that regardless of any coming reforms, she and the "raped-payers" of Arizona have already paid too high a price. She points out that the money that pays APS' lawyers for their courtroom encounters with whistle-blowers comes from utility bills--in other words, APS customers are paying more so that the utility can fight to delay fixing safety problems.

"The 'raped-payer,' as we call them, gets it coming and going," Mitchell says. "They are being charged ever-higher rates to finance APS' legal battles against those of us who are trying to make the plant safer. I don't think citizens or APS stockholders ought to be too happy about that."
One reason stockholders and ratepayers alike have reason to wonder at the millions of dollars spent on legal fees is that the man who is presumably setting company policy with regard to whistle-blowers, APS chairman Richard Snell, stands to benefit every time a whistle-blower case goes to court. APS' law firm, Snell & Wilmer, is in the family.

Fallon insists there is no conflict, noting that Snell & Wilmer was handling legal work for APS long before Richard Snell assumed the utility's chairmanship. That's true, but only because Snell & Wilmer's founder--and Richard Snell's father--Phoenix patriarch Frank Snell, helped put APS together from a number of small utilities in 1952.

APS won't say how much it spends fighting whistle-blower cases, but Fallon says the legal fees are just "a cost of doing business." He defends the company's relationship to the law firm as a "very old, mutually beneficial one." Richard Snell, Fallon says, has only an "old, tangential relationship" with Snell & Wilmer, and is not currently an active partner in the firm.

But there are signs that some APS stockholders have raised eyebrows at this arrangement, and that they are peeved that their company has doled out millions of dollars on legal wranglings with whistle-blowers. According to company insiders, one group of shareholders raised the issue with company managers in 1992.

In response, APS developed a "corporate strategic activity" report that proposed to deal with the problem by discovering the "root causes" of why "we have people so concerned that they are taking their concerns to the point of litigation."

Fallon says the company wants to "identify where there may be areas at Palo Verde where employees feel they can't bring forward concerns, and take steps to rid ourselves of those attitudes." APS, he insists, is a whistle-blower-friendly company.

But Mitchell, who continues to keep watch over Palo Verde from her home--which is located two miles from the containment domes--says that what APS really wants to do is rid itself of workers who complain. It is possible that that may be exactly what the company is achieving.

One plant employee who requested anonymity says she would "love to come forward and talk about safety problems at the plant," but is afraid to do so.

"Look," she says, "if you worked at Palo Verde, and had seen what some of those whistle-blowers went through, you would just keep your mouth shut, too. They were completely destroyed.

"I know it sounds terrible, but everybody who lives around that plant is just going to have to take their chances. I think workers at Palo Verde are done talking.

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