ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory was replaced Thursday amid a growing number of government investigations into charges of widespread theft and fraud at the birthplace of the atomic bomb.
John Browne, a physicist and lab veteran who became director in 1997, will step down Monday. He had no immediate comment, but defended his colleagues in his letter of resignation.
"In my opinion, there is neither a culture of theft in our workforce nor a culture of cover-up in senior management," Browne wrote in the letter sent Dec. 23.
"However, given the level of controversy regarding events of the past few months and the distraction it is bringing to carrying out our mission, I believe that it is in the best interests of the laboratory, the university, and the Department of Energy that I resign my position."
University of California spokesman Rick Malaspina did not give a specific reason for the resignation but said it was a "mutual decision" by Browne and the university, which runs the lab for the government.
Browne submitted his resignation after a meeting with Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham last month. "It is crucial that we restore public confidence in the management of the laboratory," Abraham said Thursday.
The FBI, Energy Department and at least two congressional committees are looking into alleged credit card abuses at the lab over the past several years and the disappearance of high-tech hardware and other equipment.
Two lab-hired investigators were fired in November and they went public, alleging a cover-up of the wrongdoing. The lab gave no reason for the dismissals and has not replaced the two men.
"They continue to cover up and to conceal the situation at the lab, and finally they've had to pay for what they've done," said Steven Doran, one of the fired investigators.
The lab has also been tarnished by security scandals, including missing computer disks and the controversy involving former scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was jailed for nine months after being accused of stealing nuclear secrets. He denied any wrongdoing and ended up pleading guilty to a single felony count after the government's case crumbled.
The university, which has managed the lab since its inception in 1943, appointed retired Navy Vice Admiral George Nanos as interim director. Also stepping down is Joseph Salgado, a principal deputy director at the lab.
"These changes reflect the university's deep concern about the allegations that have been made about Los Alamos business practices and our absolute and steadfast commitment to addressing them in a timely manner," university President Richard Atkinson said.
Many of the security problems surfaced during Bill Richardson's tenure as energy secretary under President Clinton. Richardson is now New Mexico's governor.
The resignation comes less than two months after Los Alamos released the results of an audit into its credit card program over nearly four years. The audit questioned $4.9 million in transactions, though watchdog groups said the figure should be higher.
Doran and Glenn Walp were hired last year by the lab to investigate its handling of government property and money. Walp said some $2.7 million worth of equipment was unaccounted for, including 263 computers listed as missing since 1999. Many of them are presumed stolen.
After the two men were fired, the lab said only that they were probationary employees.
In a Dec. 24 letter to Atkinson, Abraham said the investigators' dismissal and their allegations of a cover-up were an immediate concern. "The inescapable conclusion is that the actions relating to Mr. Walp and Mr. Doran reflect a systemic management failure," he said.
Abraham also said was important any investigation be independent of the university, which is under contract to run the lab until 2006.
"Taken together, these problems have called into question the University of California's ability to run the Los Alamos National Laboratory," Abraham wrote. The problems "must be remedied to ensure we return Los Alamos to its pre-eminent position in science and national security."
Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., whose district includes the lab, said the personnel changes were a first step toward fixing Los Alamos. "Clearly, the storm clouds were gathering and something had to be done," he said.
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