A former senior manager at Los Alamos National Laboratory claims he was forced to resign in April because lab officials feared fraud accusations stemming from his position with a local electric co-op might harm negotiations with the U.S. Department of Energy over the lab’s management contract.

John Tapia, who had worked for the lab since 1988, says in a breach of contract lawsuit that the lab gave him the option to quit or be fired months after he became embroiled in a Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative Inc. controversy over fraud claims that later were deemed unsubstantiated.

A lab spokesman called Tapia’s lawsuit “baseless” and said the lab will prevail.

As a deputy division leader for the lab’s Acquisition Service Management Division,Tapia had managed as much as $600 million for materials, equipment and contractors. The position pays up to $171,000 a year, according to an online job posting.

The lab is managed under federal contract by Los Alamos National Security LLC — a consortium run by the University of California, Bechtel Corp., Babcock & Wilcox Co., URS Corp. and AECOM — which he is now suing.

According to the suit, David Sosinski, general counsel for the lab, advised Tapia’s supervisor, Craig Scott Leasure, to terminate Tapia. The lawsuit states that Tapia had no prior poor performance reviews or infractions on his Level Q security clearance, which requires passing a federal background check and provides access to sensitive materials.

Tapia claims he was not given any progressive disciplinary action and that the forced resignation was abrupt and based on mostly false allegations related to his supplemental work as a trustee for the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, a position to which he was elected in 2013.

However, Matt Nerzig, a spokesman for the lab, said in an email that the decision on Tapia’s status came after a “comprehensive, two-month investigation by the laboratory into allegations of multiple policy violations.”

“John Tapia was presented with the findings and opted to resign in lieu of termination,” he said, adding, “We are confident that we will prevail in the lawsuit.”

Tapia came under scrutiny in December 2015 when John Gutting, a member of the electric co-op, accused Tapia and other board members of fraud. Gutting said they had inappropriately submitted expense reports, per diem claims and vouchers totaling more than $300,000. Gutting took his complaint to the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office and the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission. Neither began an investigation.

However, the co-op hired an independent accounting firm, Albuquerque-based McHard Accounting Consulting LLC. It found Tapia and other board members had received per diem funds and other expenses they were not entitled compensation for, but that these incidents did not constitute fraud.

Tapia received more than $61,000 in payments from the co-op between 2013 and 2016, which was $20,000 more than payments to the next highest paid trustee, the firm said in an Aug. 9 report. It stated that much of this was paid in a way that “clearly violated policy,” but “we found no evidence of any intent to deceive or conceal” these actions.

The report also stated that the accounting firm “did not perform an audit or review, as defined by the accounting profession, and therefore have not verified the accuracy of any financial statements.”

It added that many of Gutting’s complaints “are legal issues and are outside the scope of this financial investigation.”

In a letter sent Aug. 23 to co-op members, board president Bruce Duran noted that the report found “no evidence in the documents we analyzed to support allegations that Trustees were perpetrating an intentional criminal fraud scheme,” but did find that the trustee failed to follow board bylaws, policies, or regulations.

In addition to the accusations against lab officials, Tapia is accusing Gutting of defamation. The suit states that Gutting’s allegations of fraud were stated “as fact” and circulated to members of the public. The suit claims this led to his termination and caused the lab management to launch its own investigation into Tapia.

The lawsuit states that supervisors originally recommended Tapia be “counseled or transferred.” Instead, they decided that “if the Gutting allegations were accurate, it would embarrass LANS and potentially prevent it from renewing its contract with [Department of Energy] which at the time they were negotiating with DOE.”

The suit goes on to say that supervisors decided “the LANS contract was more important to them than Tapia and intentionally violated Tapia’s employment contract thereby sacrificing Tapia’s career for their personal benefit.”

Tapia also was told in April that he would not be granted a clearance badge, allowed back on lab property or provided a job reference.

Nerzig, the lab spokesman, called the accusation that Tapia’s resignation was related to the LANS contract “baseless.”

In December 2015, four months before Tapia’s resignation, the Department of Energy announced it would not renew its contract with LANS as a result of a number of poor performance reviews, including improperly packaging of a transuranic waste drum that ultimately exploded in the underground of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

The contract was initially to expire in 2017, but was extended through 2018 to allow new contractors to rebid on it. That decision was announced in May, following negotiations.

Tapia’s resignation was the second in two months by a high-level lab employee. Richard Marquez, a former executive director at the lab, resigned abruptly in February from a $492,000-per-year position.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.