U.S. Office of Special Counsel
1730 M Street, N.W., Suite 201
Washington, D.C. 20036-4505
U.S. OFFICE OF SPECIAL COUNSEL TRANSMITS REPORT SUBSTANTIATING WHISTLEBLOWER’S ALLEGATIONS OF
DEFECTIVE WELDING ON U.S. AIRCRAFT CARRIERS’ LAUNCH AND RECOVERY SYSTEMS
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - 3/13/03
CONTACT: JANE MCFARLAND
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) today transmitted to President Bush and the Congress, an investigative report substantiating a whistleblower’s allegations that unqualified welders, at the Naval Air Depot in North Island, California, had improperly performed “critical” welds on the catapult hydraulic piping systems of four U.S. aircraft carriers. These hydraulic systems are used to power various control devices and motors related to aircraft carriers’ launch and recovery systems. Nonconforming welds were found on the USS Abraham Lincoln and the USS Constellation, currently stationed in the Persian Gulf; the USS Nimitz, currently headed to the Gulf; and the USS John C. Stennis. Weld failures, although unlikely, could have resulted in the loss of aircraft and in injuries during launch procedures. The investigation also found that the jet blast deflector cylinder vent piping onboard a fifth aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, had also been improperly welded.
The whistleblower, Kristin Shott, a welder with over twelve years of experience, alleged to OSC that North Island Depot Voyage Repair Team (VRT) welders were not qualified for the work that they performed. Compounding the problem, she alleged that the Depot’s inspectors, tasked with inspecting the welders’ work, were also unqualified. Special Counsel Elaine Kaplan concluded that there was a substantial likelihood that the information Ms. Shott had provided disclosed a substantial and specific danger to public safety, as well as violations of military welding standards. By law, when such a substantial likelihood determination is made with respect to a whistleblower’s disclosures, the agency involved, in this case the Department of the Navy, is required to conduct an investigation of the disclosures and report its findings and any planned corrective and/or disciplinary actions to the Special Counsel.
The Special Counsel transmitted Ms. Shott’s disclosures to former Secretary of the Navy, The Honorable Gordon R. England. The Office of the Naval Inspector General (OIG) investigated the allegations for the Secretary. In reporting back to OSC, former Navy Secretary England concluded the investigation “exposed serious shortcomings in the quality assurance program at the Naval Air Depot.” Specifically, the investigation found that the North Island VRT welders performed critical shipboard welding processes on Navy ships that they were not qualified to perform, the weld inspectors who performed the “nondestructive testing” inspections of the welds were not properly certified, and the VRT lacked a viable quality assurance program. The former Navy Secretary noted that “Carrier Battle Ships are our frontline of national defense” and that “[t]he events described in the report of investigation establish how easy it would be to render these assets ineffective.”
In February 2002, upon learning of the preliminary results of the investigation, senior management at the North Island Navy Air Depot immediately suspended all shipboard welding operations and testing inspections at the base, pending the training and qualification of welders and inspectors. Shortly thereafter, North Island Depot welders and inspectors were sent to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (PSNS) for Naval Sea System Command qualification and recertification training. In addition, teams from PSNS inspected welds performed by VRT welders in order to discover and repair critical nonconforming welds. On the USS Abraham Lincoln, the PSNS team found that only 2 out of approximately 100 welds passed their inspection; on the USS Nimitz, only one weld out of approximately 100 passed. The team also found the VRT welders had performed nonconforming welds on the USS Constellation and USS John C. Stennis’ catapult hydraulic systems and on the USS Carl Vinson’s the jet blast deflector cylinder vent piping. The agency report explains that most of the nonconforming welds failed inspection because they were undersized.
Repairs to the catapult hydraulic piping systems on the USS Lincoln were completed in April 2002; on the USS Nimitz, in May 2002; on the USS Constellation, in June 2002; and on the USS Stennis, in November 2002. Repairs on the jet blast deflector cylinder vent piping onboard the USS Vinson were completed in December 2002. The agency reports that $468,000 was spent on repairs for three of the aircraft carriers. The report did not include the repair costs for two of the carriers – the USS Stennis and USS Vinson.
To ensure that future compliance with Naval Air Sea System Command quality and certification requirements is permanently sustained, the agency report states that the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division (Carderock), intends to conduct an initial welding and testing audit of Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) organizations, to be followed by an audit every two years thereafter. The agency informed OSC that Carderock intends to conduct welding and testing audits at three East Coast Naval Stations during the final week of March. However, audits have not yet been scheduled for NAVAIR’s West Coast locations, including the North Island Depot, nor has funding been received at this point by Carderock to allow these audits to take place.
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 VRT first-line supervisor was aware that the VRT employees were not properly certified, yet he failed to aggressively pursue this issue through his chain of command and continued to assign VRT 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 VRT supervisors and one civilian quality assurance supervisor were counseled and orally admonished.
In transmitting the agency report to the President and the Congress, the Special Counsel is required by statute to evaluate whether it contains the necessary information and whether its findings appear reasonable. Special Counsel Elaine Kaplan found that, in most respects, the Department of the Navy report met these requirements. However, she found that the disciplinary action taken against responsible officials did not appear adequate in light of the gravity of their misconduct, and she expressed concern that the agency has not yet scheduled welding and NDT inspection audits for West Coast NAVAIR locations, noting that 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.
Among its other functions, the Office of Special Counsel provides federal employees with a secure channel for blowing the whistle on violations of law, rule or regulation, gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety. OSC requires agencies to conduct investigations whenever it finds a substantial likelihood that a federal employee’s disclosures demonstrate the existence of one of these conditions. The agency must then report its findings as well as any corrective action taken to OSC. After OSC reviews the report to ensure that it contains the necessary information and that its findings appear reasonable, OSC transmits the report to the President and the Congress for further action, if appropriate.
Copies of the report from the Department of the Navy can be obtained by contacting OSC.
The closure letter to the President is available at OSC’s website under