California Finds Messing With Texas Troublesome in Major University Spat

Posted June 10, 2003 at 3:58pm

Keeping a watchful eye on moves by the Energy Department, the University of Texas is gearing up for what would be a major coup in the research community: taking operational control of the nation’s top government nuclear weapons lab away from the University of California.

But the University of California is standing fast in defense of its 60-year administration of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and lobbyists on both sides are preparing for a battle in D.C.

The Golden State’s $38.2 billion budget deficit could complicate its efforts to keep Los Alamos. And a series of highly publicized security blunders at Los Alamos and another UC-operated national lab, Lawrence Livermore near its Berkeley, Calif., flagship campus, hasn’t been helping its cause on Capitol Hill.

The battle was sparked by the fact that Energy Secretary Spence Abraham decided in March to open up the bidding process for the lab’s 2005 contract.

Throughout the lab’s history, the Energy Department and its predecessors gave the university system an administrative monopoly over the lab. That was until management scandals — including missing security passes and laptop computers with classified information — at the UC nuclear research labs starting raising the ire of officials at the Energy Department and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“You can’t have people buying Mustangs with procurement cards,” said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), citing an example of fraud at the labs. “At the same time the DOE was giving them superior [management] ratings.”

But Tauscher says any rush to throw UC out of the national labs would do more harm than good. “You can’t throw the UC baby out with the bath water,” Tauscher said.

Some Californians insist that the Bush administration is merely trying to steer government contracts to GOP-friendly states. Indeed, some Texans are clearly relishing the University of California’s misfortunes.

“Oh, wouldn’t that be great?” said one GOP Congressman from Texas, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Wouldn’t it be great to see the Californians ousted from their high horse?”

University of Texas officials are mum on their intentions for a possible Los Alamos bid, referring reporters to a prepared statement from April 30: “We are eager to see the details of [the Energy Department’s] vision for future management of national labs and a request for proposal for the [Los Alamos National Laboratory] management contract in 2005.”

While the UT administration is sitting quiet publicly, a source at the university said that behind the scenes, action has been taken to prepare the university’s bid for Los Alamos.

This isn’t the first time the University of Texas has been eyeing a national laboratory. Last year, it unsuccessfully bid for the operating contract for the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico. The university system lost out to defense giant Lockheed Martin, which had been already administering the lab.

A Lockheed Martin spokesman, meanwhile, said the company is considering a Los Alamos bid, but has not come to a definite decision.

The University of Texas has a well-stocked in-house lobbying operation and friends in high places. For its unsuccessful Sandia bid, the UT administration hired Austin attorney David Sibley, a friend of President Bush. UT also relies on the services of its former vice chancellor for government, Mike Millsap, a former Democratic state Representative who runs his own consulting shop in Austin.

According to information culled by PoliticalMoneyLine.com, UT lists seven in-house people as currently lobbying for the system, including Millsap. And, interestingly, Scott Sudduth, who is the assistant vice president for federal government relations at the University of California, is listed as lobbying for Texas, where he served previously in a similar position. Sudduth says the listing is an error.

Another UT ally is one of its former mechanical engineering professors, Dale Klein, who now works for the Defense Department, overseeing nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, many of which are housed at the national laboratories, including UC-run Los Alamos and Lawrence-Livermore.

Besides mobilizing its own in-house government affairs operation — with six senior lobbyists — the University of California has brought on outside firms including Covington & Burling and O’Neil, Athy & Casey to help it with issues related to the Los Alamos contract and Congressional inquiries into its stewardship of its national labs.

For Sudduth, UC’s top representative in D.C., it has been a busy few months since the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations began its inquiry into the security lapses at Los Alamos.

“We have really been in a response mode rather than an advocacy mode,” he said.

The inquiry culminated in a May 1 hearing where the university’s president, Richard Atkinson, who is retiring in October, took full responsibility for lab mismanagement and pledged to work with the Energy Department to fix the problems.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) said during the hearing that “the pressure of competitive bidding” is “one of the most powerful cleansers of management problems.”

Republicans contend that the current UC contract was born out of Democratic machinations. Tauzin said that despite “tough talk” from the Clinton administration to fix management problems at UC-run national labs, the Energy Department — then led by Bill Richardson, the current Democratic governor of New Mexico — turned a blind eye to the problems and extended UC’s contract two days before the new administration took the reigns of the department in 2001.

Democrats and the University of California contend that part of the management problems are tied to structural problems at the Energy Department and miscommunication. “It’s a marriage. And in marriages, as we know, it’s not just up to one person,” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said at the hearing.

But on May 30, matters went from bad to worse. The Energy Department became infuriated when the University of California disclosed — six weeks after the fact — that security keycards were missing at Lawrence-Livermore at a time when such sites were on heightened alert for terrorist threats. The Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration dispatched a top team of investigators to the lab to assess the lab’s security.

As the Energy Department plots its next move, the University of California is concentrating on the “short-term game,” as Sudduth put it.

In many ways, the University of California can’t be looked at as a normal university. With nine campuses and 180,000 students system-wide, the university has to lobby more like a Fortune 500 company than an educational institute. “Depending on how you look at recent defense sector mergers, we rank between the fifth to the eighth largest government contractor,” Sudduth said. “You would have to compare us to a Boeing.”

Unlike a Fortune 500 company, UC must deal with state appropriations, which haven’t been too generous because of the Golden State’s budget woes.

“What we’ve made very clear to the Department of Energy and Congress is that one of the factors for us is how we are going to put together the funding for a competitive bid,” he said.

In a meeting with the university’s regents last month, the Energy Department, along with encouraging UC to bid, came up with a proposal that could defray costs of competing, though some critics question the plan’s feasibility. A bid could cost UC anywhere between $5 million to $25 million, according to some estimates.

Some Californians fear that could be a weakness for Texas to exploit. In the meantime, California’s Congressional delegation is supportive, but will not make a move until UC officially throws its hat into the ring.

“If the university chooses to pursue the contract, the delegation will be supportive of the bid,” said Sarah Rosen, a spokeswoman for Rep. Sam Farr, the chairman of California’s Democratic Congressional delegation.

But does having friends in D.C. really help a contender’s bid for a government contract? For Bill Madia, the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory near Knoxville, Tenn., the answer is no.

In an interview, Madia said that a private contractor, organization or university spends months assembling a team and crafting a detailed bid. “The team that wins writes the best proposal,” he said. “They are the ones who have the best answers to the Department of Energy’s questions.”

Madia has led nine similar bids for government lab contracts for the Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute, which itself is a player in large government research contracts and manages Oak Ridge.

But Madia, and Battelle, is looking at Los Alamos as well. “We will do a very hard internal analysis and will come to a conclusion on whether it is in our interest, and if we do, we will likely bid.”