Last Strike?

The FBI's NASA sting operation may finally be headed to court

"It's 99 percent finished," Francis told the Jacksons. "I mean, we have the technology ... we're building it as we speak."

At another point, the undercover FBI agent also assured the Jacksons that "if you guys have not made a million dollars by your [then-expected] child's first birthday, I'll pay you the balance in cash. My personal word."

Toward the end of the videotaped meeting (in which Francis indicated that he wanted an introduction to Carolyn Huntoon, who was then in charge of JSC's Life Sciences Division and now is director of the space center), the undercover agent gave the Jacksons a briefcase containing $7,500. Granted, that's not the typical ending to a typical, aboveboard business agreement. But there was nothing implicitly illegal about it, either. And it was not until the money had changed hands that Francis changed the tone of the meeting by suggesting to the Jacksons that he played by a different set of rules when it came to doing business.

"Some of it's ethical and some of it's not," Francis explained. "If you want to play the game, you gotta be mentally tough enough to ... to do whatever's necessary and, you know, I can't be more explicit than that. And what I'm looking for is people who have the same amount of concern that I do.

"If you guys feel uneasy or queasy or anything like that, now's the time to tell me as opposed to two months or six months from now."

The Jacksons, for the most part, sat silently and nodded their heads in agreement. During one pregnant pause, however, Karen Jackson spoke up: "We'll just have to see what happens. I guess there's always surprises."

And there would be. Although it will be difficult, it is precisely that kind of information that Dale Brown hopes to be able to present to the jury during his trial. He also wants to put Hal Francis on the witness stand.

Francis, who left the FBI after completion of the sting and is now writing a book about it, acknowledges that he may finally have to testify, but his testimony, as he notes, could be for the prosecution, the defense, or both. Still, he wonders why the government is even going to the trouble of prosecuting Brown.

"I can't believe we're pursuing a $500 bribery case," says Francis. "But if we're going to do it, let's do it."

Apart from his attempt to discredit Lightning Strike, Brown may have difficulty proving his own innocence on the bribery charge, which stems from work he did for another of Neal Jackson's companies, Space Inc. -- a company set up to manufacture circuit boards and wiring assembly systems. Brown's defense may hinge on the possibility of testimony from Jackson, a close friend. Brown is counting on Jackson to verify that when he delivered the $500 to the Army procurement officer, he was doing so at the direction of his bosses, Jackson and Clifford/Francis, who had pumped money into Space Inc. and had become its financial director and part-owner. Jackson, however, is awaiting sentencing on bribery and procurement violations charges to which he has pleaded guilty, and prosecutors doubtless would recommend a stiffer sentence for Jackson if he were to testify for Brown.

Brown faces an uphill battle on all fronts, and his chances may have been significantly diminished this week when U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. refused Brown's request to hire lawyer Mike DeGeurin. The judge cited a potential conflict of interest stemming from DeGeurin's earlier discussions with the Jacksons about the possibility of representing them. DeGeurin was part of the team that defended the surviving Branch Davidians and tried, with some success, to discredit the actions of federal agents in their botched raid and standoff with David Koresh and his followers.

"Not only has the government controlled the crimes in this case,"DeGeurin says of Lightning Strike, "they're also deciding who the attorneys will be.

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