The Cloud Over Lightning Strike

Did the U.S. government spend $2 million just to nail little guys like David Proctor?

When the cover was formally pulled off of Operation Lightning Strike, U.S. Attorney Gaynelle Griffin Jones claimed it had uncovered widespread corruption among JSC contractors. But in reality, the expensive, free-wheeling investigation had resulted in charges against only a handful of mid-level managers and one small business. Martin Marietta and General Electric agreed to jointly pay a $1 million settlement to help defray the cost of the $2 million probe. Martin Marietta had acquired GE's government services division in 1993, while the investigation was ongoing.

In January federal prosecutors had offered Proctor a plea bargain that would have required him to plead guilty to accepting a bribe. But he rejected the deal, and in June he was named in a six-count federal indictment. Proctor is basically accused of accepting bribes, the cash and the computer, and of disclosing proprietary information -- a NASA document called A Proposal for Research in Biomedical Instrumentation for Manned Mission Life Sciences, which he contends is non-sensitive material.

Proctor's first defense attorney -- to whom he paid a $10,000 retainer -- was ineligible to represent him because he also represented another Lightning Strike defendant. Because his second attorney had merely given advice to another defendant, he, too, was disqualified. His third attorney -- appointed by the court -- recently moved for a continuance because of a heart problem. Proctor has been given a second court-appointed lawyer.

While Proctor -- who had undergone both psychological and physical therapy to deal with the stress -- may have violated internal NASA policy by failing to notify his superiors of his after-hours consulting, he refuses to plead guilty to the criminal charges because, he says, the government has yet to show him "in West Texas lingo" what he did wrong.

However, he and Francis agree on one point: Proctor's undercover work for the government did cause others, including some management types, to incriminate themselves. They also agree it is unlikely those people will ever be charged.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno earlier this month outlining his complaints about Operation Lightning Strike, Proctor wrote, "It was clear at the time that I had given the agent enough evidence to indict several high-ranking officials at NASA for illegal acts. It was also clear I was asked to stop gathering information to prevent any further implication of these NASA officials so that the [Department of Justice] would not be compelled to prosecute them."

While Francis, who is no longer with the FBI, for months has spoken freely and in great detail about his undercover derring-do, Proctor says that until only recently he had been intimidated into silence by the Justice Department and FBI. Almost everyone else connected to the receiving end of Lightning Strike has remained silent, including the ordinarily verbose defense attorneys who represent the other 11 defendants and two companies accused of wrongdoing. Even most of those who were caught on the periphery of Operation Lightning Strike have refused to speak on-the-record. One exception is 75-year-old John Crenshaw, who has been in the aerospace business for more than 40 years.

A consultant for Winzen International, a San Antonio-based aerospace company, Crenshaw was a founding member of SWAPRA, the Southwest Aerospace Professional Representatives Association. Crenshaw is a man with wide contacts in and around JSC, where it helps when doing business to be a SWAPRA member or to know one.

Crenshaw was introduced to John Clifford by Neal Jackson, a good friend for several years. At the time, Winzen International was hunting for investment capital, and Clifford signaled an interest in providing some. Clifford also expressed a desire for a contact in Washington D.C. who could present his lithotripter. Crenshaw opened the door for Clifford to meet James Beggs, who had resigned as NASA administrator in 1985 after he was indicted by the Justice Department for allegedly defrauding the government during his tenure as an executive with General Dynamics, where Crenshaw had previously been employed. The charges were later dropped.

"I told Clifford that he didn't need me and to call [J.M. Beggs & Associates], this is what they do," remembers Crenshaw. "But he said he'd rather that I make the introductory call. So I did. Even that to me smacks of attempted entrapment." And, according to Crenshaw, so was the manner in which the government bagged Beggs' associate James Robertson, and, almost, Beggs himself.

Beggs and Robertson met Clifford and voiced interest in the lithotripter. Beggs, an engineer, even went to the phony manufacturing plant in Maryland where he was fooled by the device. "He didn't know he was dealing with a liar," Crenshaw explains. Robertson, however, handled most of the company's dealings with Clifford, accompanying him, Crenshaw and Jackson on one of the fishing trips to the Florida Keys.

Francis says during one of their meetings he offered to provide Beggs and Robertson with low-bid information about a $600,000 Defense Department contract unrelated to the lithotripter project. "I originally had a meeting with Beggs, Robertson and [another Beggs partner]," he says. "I explained to them that it was a done deal, that we had inside guys that were going to give us low-bid information on the contract. Mr. Beggs, quite frankly, said, 'Let's go take a look at it.'

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets