By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
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By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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Francis says he asked, "Who's your
"NASA," was the response.
Shortly before Francis arrived in Houston in the summer of 1991, an official with NASA's Inspector General's office had approached the FBI about investigating allegations of corruption within the close-knit space industry that is the heart and soul of the Clear Lake area. So, in July of that year, Francis, another FBI agent and the NASA official sat down to plot strategy and review the more than 300 complaints -- many of them anonymous -- that had been lodged with the IG's office against various space agency employees and contractors. Francis says his team weeded the complaints down to "25 that were worth a shit." Those basically were people or companies that had been the object of multiple complaints, or complaints that involved sizable amounts of money.
"What we were interested in was where there was collusion on contracts worth millions of dollars -- those kinds of allegations. Primarily because this United States Attorney's office here locally at that time had kind of an unofficial mandate that if there wasn't an economic loss of [at least] $100,000, don't bother us with it. It had to be something rather substantial."
According to Francis, most of the allegations that met the FBI's criteria centered on General Electric's government services division and JSC's Life Sciences division. Francis and his team also hoped to net some current and former top NASA administrators. Once the investigative team had settled on who they were going target, they had to figure out how. Francis decided to resurrect the character he had used while working undercover in St. Louis: fictitious businessman John Clifford.
"I had just finished two-and-a-half years of what's called deep cover in St. Louis where I had been the John Clifford character up there," he says. "We had protected [the Clifford character] pretty well ... in St. Louis, no one went to trial, so it didn't become a matter of public record." Francis says he was comfortable with the character's persona: a white-collar type he describes as having more money and bullshit than brains.
"The only difference was, I wasn't going to be quite as sleazy down here as I was up there," laughs Francis.
In addition to the encore for John Clifford, Francis and the other agents also concocted a bogus company -- Southern Technologies Diversified -- to front their investigation. Armed with instant legitimacy, thanks to a FBI-generated Standards and Poors record, along with Atlanta bankers willing to vouch for the solvency of STD, Francis set out in December 1991 to cajole and bribe his way into the lucrative inner sanctum of JSC. But perhaps revealingly -- at least in the minds of critics of the operation -- the planned failed to work right away.
"I had more doors shut in my face the first week than I ever have in my life," Francis admits. "One of the things that we were told through all of the informants that we'd developed and people that we talked to was that the [NASA] community itself was a very closed, close-knit community and that you kind of had to be vouched for to be accepted. You had to have someone to kind of lead you by the hand through the door." What he also needed, Francis decided, was a product.
After conferring with renal specialists at the University of Texas Medical Center, Francis seized upon the idea of passing off a used ultra-sound machine as a portable lithotripter -- a device that crushes kidney stones -- that purportedly could be developed for use on the space shuttle. The idea was especially appealing to Francis, given the fact that some shuttle astronauts had developed kidney stones while in space. The agent also purchased warehouse space in Maryland, which he would pass off as his manufacturing plant when he took his targets there to convince them of his legitimacy. He would also take them to fancy restaurants, topless bars and fishing trips in the Florida Keys, flashing cash and talking trash along the way.
Finally, Francis says, he was prepared to set his trap.
"We happened to have a couple of individuals who were part of our major target list that did consulting work," says Francis. "We approached them and said that we were in the business of fronting a major piece of medical technology into the NASA system, and would they be interested in representing us in this matter. And then we laid out the deal. 'We got a piece of shit, we don't know if it works. We don't care if it works. We're only interested in the commercial application of it and want to use NASA's name to market it commercially. We just want NASA to throw some money at it.' And still, that didn't upset anyone in the whole scheme of things."
According to Francis, the first person he approached with the fake device was Neal Jackson of Space Inc., a small company that Jackson and his wife, Karen, operated near JSC. Jackson, a Texas A&M graduate and military reservist who served in Operation Desert Storm, was not averse to bending the rules when it came to doing business, according to Francis (Jackson's lawyer said his client would not comment for this story).