The Cloud Over Lightning Strike

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

"In my opinion Mr. Beggs should have been charged right alongside Mr. Robertson. The crime that Mr. Robertson was charged, convicted and sentenced of, Mr. Beggs had input in the beginning of that crime and he input into the ending of that crime." (Robertson pleaded guilty to receiving confidential federal bid documents. He was sentenced to three years probation and fined $5,000.)

That's Francis' opinion. In the opinion of John Crenshaw, as well as some NASA employees, taking down Jim Beggs -- who had eluded the grasp of the Justice Department once before -- was one of the two unspoken goals of Operation Lightning Strike. Honest and hard-working people like Robertson and David Proctor, Crenshaw says, were ensnared for innocent mistakes and had their lives ruined when the government couldn't pin charges on larger targets.

"When Jim Beggs' name came up I think the Justice Department thought they finally had him," says Crenshaw. "I think it was a vendetta, since he had gotten off the hook the first time. But the bureaucracy has a long memory. They are very vindictive. And that's something that scares the hell out of me because of what I'm doing. But I'm doing it anyway.

"The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I couldn't just ignore what they were doing to my friends [who] I was certain were innocent," Crenshaw explains, his eyes beginning to water. "Besides, I have four kids. I don't want to leave them a country...."

Crenshaw's voice cracks and he can't hold back the tears. He removes his glasses and wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. "My generation fought and won a war to keep Nazi Germany or Tojo's Japan from doing this to us. Now our own government is doing it to us."

Neither Robertson nor Beggs will discuss the particulars of Operation Lightning Strike, but Beggs gladly will offer his general opinion of the probe.

"I think the whole idea of the government running stings in which you [use] government employees who lie and offer bribes with impunity, I think that's outrageous," he says. "I don't see any difference in that from what the Nazis did.

"What really disturbs me about them doing this kind of thing to NASA is that you sow the seeds of distrust among the people in the agency who are responsible for running a very difficult and exceedingly hazardous program. To sow the seeds of distrust, deliberately, in that program is about as despicable and disgusting and rotten a thing to do as I can imagine."

And it is on that point that Crenshaw -- and others -- hang their theory about the second secret objective of Operation Lightning Strike. Although he offers no hard proof, Crenshaw is convinced that the sting was part of a plan by upper NASA management to discredit the agency's manned space program, headquartered at JSC, and pave the way for its eventual elimination. It's a theory that has been circulated some among the rank and file at JSC. An anonymous group calling itself the "Save Manned Space Flight Committee" has distributed an eight-page desktop-printed tabloid headlined, "NASA HELD HOSTAGE: The True Story Of The Lightning Strike Invasion," which calls for a congressional investigation of the sting operation.

A spokesman for NASA Administrator Dan Goldin said Goldin could not comment on Operation Lightning Strike because of the pending criminal cases. As for the conspiracy theory to which Crenshaw subscribes, NASA spokesman Brian Welch dismisses the notion as "patently absurd. It's ridiculous. It's goofy."

In his own brace of letters written this past summer to Attorney General Reno, Crenshaw charged that Francis attempted to entrap him, even though no complaints had been lodged against him or Winzen International.

"To my knowledge, there was no prior criminal activity unearthed in this operation on the part of those charged," Crenshaw wrote. "[Operation Lightning Strike] was nothing more than a fishing expedition." Crenshaw urged Reno to investigate the conduct of FBI and Justice Department officials involved in the JSC sting.

In August, an assistant to Reno, David Margolis, replied to Crenshaw's letters, saying that the DOJ had already launched an internal review of allegations of misconduct in Lightning Strike. According to Margolis' letter, the internal probe is being conducted by the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). Francis says he is unconcerned about the action, which he describes as "routine."

"If you go out and screw around in an area that involves middle-class America, people with the financial means to hire high-profile attorneys, and if you take on controversial issues, you're going to have OPR complaints," he says. "Because this segment of society has greater wherewithal to be able to mount opposition to undercover work, and entrapment is usually the easiest thing to attack."

Francis casually dismisses Crenshaw's anguished criticisms as those of a hurt, elderly man who has been "put out to pasture," and he claims that Crenshaw and Winzen International were lucky not to have been charged as a part of Lightning Strike. He alleges that Winzen was overcharging the government on contracts for high-altitude balloons it produces -- a charge that Crenshaw vehemently denies.

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