When it was announced in March that Kristin Shott, a 36-year-old welder at the Naval Air Depot on North Island, had won an award for blowing the whistle on a long history of faulty welds made by unqualified tradesmen working on the pride of America's carrier fleet, the USS Abraham Lincoln -- along with the Stennis, the Constellation, and the Nimitz -- the Navy quickly launched a campaign of damage control.
"The whistleblower is part of the system, and we're pleased that it worked," North Island's Captain Peter Laszcz told one of the several TV news reporters to show up at the base as a result of a news release touting Shott's award from the Washington-based U.S. Office of Independent Counsel. "Once we became aware of that,we took immediate steps to stop all work, inspect the work we had done, and fix the work once we found out it wasn't up to standards."
Shott had long labored on the catapult hydraulic piping systems, which are used to fling the nation's multimillion-dollar jet fighters and their crews from the carrier decks into battle, as well as the jet-blast deflector doors that are raised and lowered during takeoff operations. The only woman in a shop called the Voyage Repair Team, Shott's repeated complaints to civilian supervisors and their naval officer superiors went nowhere, until they finally caught the attention of special counsel Elaine D. Kaplan, a lawyer who took that job in May 1998 after being nominated to a five-year term by President Bill Clinton.
About the same time she signed off on the award for Shott, Kaplan also went to bat for Bogdan Dzakovic, an ex-special agent with the Federal Aviation Administration's "Red Team," a crew of undercover security agents who were supposed to penetrate airport security and find shortcomings. Dzakovic alleged the program was grossly mismanaged and was rewarded by being hastily shuffled to an obscure agency job by Admiral James Loy, then undersecretary of transportation security.
Reportedly, neither the Shott award nor the Dzakovic investigation made Democrat Kaplan popular with the Navy and elsewhere in the Bush administration and the Republican Congress. Though the Shott story got virtually no play in the San Diego Union-Tribune, it did garner local TV coverage and made big headlines in the Daily Press of Newport News, along with other papers in cities where bases and Navy repair facilities are located.
That appears to be just what Kaplan intended. She set up the Public Servant Award program in 2001, raising the profile of the Office of Special Counsel, which had until then concentrated on enforcing the Hatch Act, the ban against federal employees involving themselves in political activities. Shott was the whistleblowing honor's fourth recipient, and what she alleged didn't make the Navy look good. A subsequent Navy investigation sustained many of her claims.
"On the USS Abraham Lincoln, [investigators] found that only 2 out of approximately 100 welds passed their inspection; on the USS Nimitz, only one weld out of approximately 100 passed," noted Kaplan's release heralding Shott's award. "The team also found the Voyage Repair Team welders had performed nonconforming welds on the USS Constellation and USS John C. Stennis' catapult hydraulic systems and on the USS Carl Vinson's jet blast deflector cylinder vent piping. The agency report explains that most of the nonconforming welds failed inspection because they were undersized.
"The agency report concluded that four supervisors and one Naval Officer had performed their duties in a negligent manner. It found that the North Island Voyage Repair Team first-line supervisor was aware that the Voyage Repair Team employees were not properly certified, yet he failed to aggressively pursue this issue through his chain of command and continued to assign Voyage Repair Team welders work that he knew they were unqualified to perform. As a result, he was suspended for three days. A Non-Punitive Letter of Caution was issued to the Naval Officer who oversaw the quality assurance program. Two civilian Voyage Repair Team supervisors and one civilian quality assurance supervisor were counseled and orally admonished."
Over on North Island, neither welder Shott nor her champion Kaplan are very popular. Though no one will say so for the record, top Navy brass there and back in Washington are said to be angry about what they claim is Kaplan's "liberal meddling" and the timing of the Shott announcement on the eve of war with Iraq. Though the Navy argued it had rooted out the problems, Kaplan said she was not satisfied with the Navy's response to Shott's allegations and issued a follow-up recommendation to the president, asking for a more exhaustive investigation of North Island and the Navy brass there.
"Disciplinary action taken against responsible officials did not appear adequate in light of the gravity of their misconduct," Kaplan said, noting that the Navy "has not yet scheduled welding and NDT inspection audits for West Coast NAVAIR locations." According to her March 13 news release, "These audits are critical to the extent that they may allow the Navy to discover and repair other noncompliant welds on Navy vessels, that may otherwise pose a danger to public safety."
But Kaplan will not be around to follow up. Last week, she resigned her position as special counsel after it became obvious George W. Bush would not reappoint her. Next month she will join the D.C. law firm of Bernabei and Katz, a plaintiffs' practice specializing in sexual harassment and whistleblowers. "In these times of heightened concern about national security, it is very important that OSC be viewed as a credible, non-partisan advocate on behalf of [federal employee] whistleblowers," Kaplan said in her farewell message, adding she hoped "this goal, among others, has been achieved during my tenure, and that it will continue to be given a high priority."
All of which leaves Shott, who lives in Oceanside with her husband, also a North Island worker, in more than a bit of limbo. She's been removed as a welder in Voyage Repair. Even before Kaplan departed, Shott says she knew her career at North Island was virtually finished, and she's filed a civil suit against the government, alleging sexual harassment by her fellow workers. Recently she sat down in her lawyer's Sorrento Valley office to talk about what she argues is a heavy-maintenance system gone completely out of control and then covered up, jeopardizing the lives of Navy pilots and carrier crewmembers.