Ex-NASA Mars InSight contractor sets legal eagles on JPL over whistleblower sacking

Hot on heels of $1.5m win against his employers

The Mars InSight Lander
The Mars Insight Lander, which Californian engineer David Lillie was working on before he was sacked

The former Mars InSight Lander engineer who won $1.5m from his employer after it sacked him for whistleblowing is now suing NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab for its part in his professional downfall.

David Lillie, a Californian who previously worked for NASA contractor Mantech, proved in American federal court that his employer was illicitly accessing confidential files from fellow defence contractors Lockheed Martin.

Lillie said he was encouraged to use a set of illegally obtained, Lockheed Martin-owned MathCAD files as part of a design project for the Mars Insight Lander. Lockheed's contract with NASA stated that other contractors were explicitly not permitted to view the files. Nonetheless, Mantech obtained them anyway and used their contents for its own work on the project.

One-time Mars InSight Lander engineer scores $1.5m redress over whistleblower sacking

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After raising concerns that a JPL mission assurance manager had told him to cover his tracks and delete references in his work output to the Lockheed files, Lillie was fired. His resulting lawsuit against Mantech International Corporation netted him $1.5m, as we reported at the time.

Now Lillie is pursuing the NASA JPL directly, as recent filings in the Superior Court of the State of California seen by The Register show – and they are, in part, based on information Mantech disclosed during his earlier US federal lawsuit.

Lillie alleges that JPL Mars Insight deputy mission assurance manager Chau Brown was the one who told him to delete references to the MathCAD files – and that Brown was told by a senior JPL manager, Linda Facto, not to use them but decided to ignore that and go ahead anyway.

After being wrongfully fired by Mantech, the JPL "were committed to punishing [Lillie] for reporting JPL's misuse of documents and information in violation of state and federal law", causing him "significant economic as well as emotional and reputational damage". After Mantech fired him, the JPL sent him a "separation notification" asking him to "return his NASA badge". At a meeting arranged by his congresswoman, Lillie handed JPL employees a CD containing the MathCAD files.

Then, he claims, based on emails disclosed in the federal lawsuit, JPL employee Mai Drummond contacted a JPL manager claiming he still had possession of the files, described in the lawsuit as "third party and ITAR [International Trafficking in Arms Regulations] controlled data which [Lillie] took from JPL". He says this is untrue because the only copy he had was on the CD. Nonetheless, says the Californian engineer, the JPL then told Mantech he was "playing dirty", causing Mantech to blacklist him from future employment.

Lillie claims that the JPL defamed him, was negligent (in that it owed him a duty of care and breached that through Drummond's actions), as well as intentionally and negligently inflicted emotional distress. The case is ongoing. ®

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