By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Not if Dale Brown has his way.
Brown will go to trial on June 13 on a charge of bribing a federal employee. When he does, it will mark the first time any of the handful of subcontractors and mid-level JSC employees ensnared in the FBI's $2 million sting will actually have the accusations against them hashed out before a jury.
All the other Lightning Strike defendants have entered into plea bargain arrangements with the government. Federal authorities maintain that the pleas resulted from the strong, unassailable cases the government had compiled. Critics of Lightning Strike contend the guilty pleas were copped as a result of questionable high-pressure tactics used by the Justice Department to prevent its controversial investigation of JSC and the Clear Lake space community from being scrutinized in open court.
Brown envisions putting the entire operation on trial when he enters the dock.
"I want the truth of Operation Lightning Strike to be known," says Brown, who worked unwittingly for almost a year near the heart of the sting, which eventually brought down 14 individuals and two small companies.
"I don't believe any of the people who were indicted ever had the predisposition to commit a crime," he adds. "Government agents created the crimes."
Prosecutors, on the other hand, intend to show that Brown gave $500 to the chief procurement officer at the Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania to influence the awarding of a Defense Department contract worth $220,000. If convicted, Brown faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.
A 39-year-old native of Ohio, Brown moved to Houston in the mid-1980s, took a master's degree in business from the University of Houston at Clear Lake in 1988 and then pursued a career in the JSC-related aerospace industry. Working first for established subcontractors, Brown and three partners formed their own subcontracting company, TerraSpace Inc., in 1991. It was one of the hundreds of enterprises in the Clear Lake area in which aerospace entrepreneurs hustle smaller jobs while submitting bids to contract out work from industry giants like IBM and Rockwell, in hopes of one day landing one of those large, lucrative NASA contracts.
It was in that setting that Brown and his partners set up shop four years ago. To keep himself afloat financially while trying to get TerraSpace off the ground, Brown performed freelance work for other JSC subcontractors. He developed a special relationship with one company in particular -- Horizon Aerospace, owned by Karen and Neal Jackson. In early 1992, Brown began helping the Jacksons with Horizon's subcontract work. Not long after, Neal Jackson became involved in a business relationship with a newcomer to the Clear Lake area named John Clifford, who actually was FBI agent Hal Francis. The agent recently had been transferred to Houston from St. Louis, where he had successfully engineered a sting of Defense Department contractors.
Clifford set up shop in Clear Lake as Southern Technologies Diversified (whose initials, he later boasted to the Chronicle, were a play on the term "sexually transmitted diseases"). Talking fast and armed with plenty of cash to spread around, Clifford attempted to make inroads into the tight-knit JSC community by promoting his now-infamous portable "lithotripter," or kidney stone smasher. Space shuttle astronauts had been plagued by kidney stone problems, and Clifford told anyone who would listen that his portable lithotripter could be flown aboard the shuttle and used by the astronauts while in space. There was one problem: Clifford's lithotripter was a completely bogus piece of equipment.
Ever since Operation Light Strike became public, the non-functioning lithotripter peddled by Clifford/Francis has been at the core of the government's case. Almost all of the defendants, in one way or another, were lured into Francis' web and, according to prosecutors, the wrong side of the law by the kidney stone smasher. It was a project that was supposedly known to be a fake -- and therefore illegal -- by all of the targets of the sting, especially Neal Jackson, who was used by Francis to establish a rapport with most of the others who would eventually be charged by the government.
However, a secretly recorded government videotape obtained by the Press suggests that Jackson, at least when he agreed to go to work for Francis, may not have known that the lithotripter was a scam. And to Lightning Strike critics, that lack of professed criminal intent would call the government's entire sting operation into question.
"The feds would have you believe that Francis was down there wearing a sign saying, 'This is a fake,'" says space industry veteran John Crenshaw, a vocal critic of Lightning Strike who was targeted by investigators but never charged in the sting. "That was not the case."
On April 1, 1992, Karen and Neal Jackson drove from Clear Lake to Houston, where they met with Clifford at a warehouse on the South Loop to sign a personal services contract. The meeting was being secretly videotaped by the FBI. When Francis paid the Jacksons in cash, Neal Jackson even joked that "if the tape's rolling, we'll have to live with it," a remark that the government has cited as evidence that Jackson was well aware he was committing a crime. However, at no time during the hourlong meeting did Francis ever suggest to the Jacksons that the lithotripter was bogus. In fact, he did just the opposite, at one point informing the couple that his STD company had filed for a patent on the piece of equipment the day before.
"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.