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Six months later, Sandia back-hacker still waits for his $4.7M

Shawn Carpenter won a wrongful termination suit against Sandia Labs

August 22, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Six months after being awarded more than $4.7 million in damages and other costs stemming from a wrongful termination suit against Sandia National Laboratories, Shawn Carpenter, a former security analyst at the organization, has yet to collect a dime.

In the meantime, a 15% per year postjudgment interest fee added to the jury award has added more than $300,000 to the original amount since the February verdict.

"The way Sandia's current management and oversight contract is set up with the Department of Energy, they basically have an unlimited bucket of taxpayer money to fund their legal endeavors," Carpenter said. "The case will likely drag on for years."

A spokesman from Sandia did not immediately respond to a request for updates on the case. But in the past, the laboratory has said that while it respects the jury process, it intends to pursue its right to appeal the verdict all the way to the New Mexico Supreme Court, if need be. The lab has defended its right to able to discipline employees who violate its policies.

Carpenter, a onetime network intrusion-detection analyst at Sandia, was fired in January 2005 for sharing information related to an internal network compromise with the FBI and the U.S. Army. Sandia alleged that Carpenter had inappropriately shared confidential information he had gathered in his role as a security analyst for the laboratory.

Carpenter defended his actions by saying he had done so only in the interest of national security. He claimed that the intrusions he was investigating appeared to have been perpetrated by a Chinese hacking group called Titan Rain that had been linked to several serious incidents at various U.S. government agencies. Carpenter also claimed that he had tried unsuccessfully to get the information to the other agencies through proper channels at Sandia before deciding to share the information on his own with the other agencies.

After being fired by Sandia, Carpenter filed a lawsuit against the agency for wrongful termination.

In February, a New Mexico jury awarded Carpenter more than $4.3 million in punitive damages and more than $400,000 in other damages. A few weeks later, the New Mexico district court district presiding over the case added the 15% per year in postjudgment interest to the original award while Sandia's appeal worked its way through the courts. According to Carpenter, Sandia has hired three new attorneys in addition to the two previously handling the case to tackle the posttrial appeals process.

The costs involved in litigation for contracts such as Sandia have typically been reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Energy, Carpenter noted. He pointed to a 2003 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) that showed that the DOE reimbursed contractors for $330.5 million in litigation costs associated with 1,895 cases from fiscal 1998 through March 2003. The amount included $249.4 million for litigation costs and $81.1 million for judgments and settlements.

The GAO report noted that during the same period, the contractors themselves only spent only about $12 million of their own money. Rules regarding reimbursement of legal expenses to DOE contractors have been tightened. But they don't apply in his case, because it was filed before the new rules went into effect, Carpenter said.

"I'd like to see people take some responsibility for their actions, but that probably isn't going to happen," he said.

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