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The regular January meeting of the local MENSA chapter was over, but some members of the high-IQ society stuck around at the Rock Bottom Brewery to chat up the evening's guest speaker, FBI agent Rolando Moss.
One couple seemed especially interested in hearing more from the agent about his line of work. And Moss, who is the press spokesman for the FBI's Houston office, quickly warmed to the post-speech banter. When one of the MENSAites identified himself as working at Johnson Space Center and told Moss that he was "fascinated" by "all that activity" down in Clear Lake that had gotten the FBI so much publicity, Moss chuckled and asked, "You talking about Lightning Strike?"
Indeed he was, and probably before even Moss knew it, the agent was declaring his forthcoming comments to be "off-the-record" and launching into an amazingly candid commentary on that multimillion-dollar FBI sting, which closed out last week after ensnaring 13 NASA contractors and employees who aren't exactly household names.
What Moss didn't realize was that the man who seemed particularly insistent in keeping the conversation steered toward Lightning Strike was none other than Vince Maleche, one of two people who did prison time as a result of the sting. And what Moss apparently failed to notice was that the woman accompanying his interlocutor -- who turned out to be Maleche's wife Gayle -- was holding a microcassette tape recorder in her hand as the agent held forth on Lightning Strike.
With the Maleches smiling and encouraging Moss on with such exclamations as "That's fascinating!" and "Really!" the voluble G-man proved his worth as an FBI publicist, even after hours. To sum up Moss' musings on what we'll call the "Rock Bottom Tape": maybe Lightning Strike was a bust, but for that you can blame politics, big money and the U.S. Attorney's Office.
A former division director for General Electric Government Services who did two months in a federal prison after pleading guilty to accepting a $2,500 kickback and obtaining confidential NASA documents, Maleche says he and his wife had gone to the Westheimer brewery just to hear Moss' speech and had no idea the agent would spout off so provocatively after delivering his much less interesting formal talk.
"We were surrounded by people," recounts Maleche. "He just expounded of his own volition. It wasn't secret. Everybody introduced themselves by name."
But the name "Maleche" must not have rung a bell with Moss, who, as the tape recorder rolled, seemed to suggest that high-ranking officials at NASA and in the aerospace industry should have faced charges as a result of the sting -- a contention voiced by non-government critics of the operation.
"The politicians came and got involved down there," said Moss. "There was a lot of things that happened out at the Johnson Space Center that should have been prosecuted." But it was the "the system," he added, that thwarted the FBI's efforts to nail higher-ups. "When it gets into the system," he said, "that's when you have the prosecutors that get involved, politicians get involved, you get the vice president and the president, because you're talking about megabucks E."
"Are you saying you had an investigation and the politicians said stop it?" asked Maleche.
"I'm not saying that," Moss replied, but a transcript of the taped conversation notes that he was laughing and nodding his head up and down at the same time.
Later in the conversation, Moss said "certain people" were spared prosecution, and he blamed U.S. Attorney Gaynelle Griffin Jones for Lightning Strike's failure to net anything more than a midlevel JSC manager and a handful of small-fish contractors.
"We did the investigation, the United States Attorney's Office did the prosecutions. That's where you might have a problem," Moss told his listeners. Inexperienced assistant federal attorneys -- "rookies" who had never prosecuted cases involving government contracts -- were assigned to the cases, he said.
Moss was especially critical of Jones' office for signing an agreement that allowed major NASA contractors Martin Marietta and G.E. Government Services to pay a $1 million fine, which supposedly was used to help defray the costs of the investigation. The payment allowed Martin Marietta, which had purchased the G.E. division during the investigation, to avoid entanglement in the criminal prosecutions while keeping its NASA contracts. That pretty much pulled the plug on Lightning Strike, at least according to Moss: "Gaynelle Griffin Jones is coming in [to office] and you are an inexperienced attorney and prosecutor sitting down at a table with Martin Marietta-G.E. attorneys? Give me a break. That's the blind leading the blind."
"Once they made the deal with Martin, it was over, wasn't it?" Maleche asked.
"That's right," replied Moss. "It was moot. I mean there it is! But people were saying the bureau did that. We didn't do that! We had nothing to do with that E."
"Martin kept their contract and paid the million bucks and got out from under," Maleche observed.
"Yeah, but they knew!" said Moss, adding, "It's a fact. But it goes beyond what they did. I mean it's the big picture, Martin has megabucks! E money! Big money!"
Moss also sketched a rather unflattering picture of former fellow agent Hal Francis, who quit the FBI after masterminding the Lightning Strike sting. Posing as good ol' boy businessman John Clifford, Francis tried to lure contractors, NASA employees and at least one astronaut into his scheme to sell the space agency on a fake kidney-stone-smashing device that could be taken on the shuttle.
Francis, said Moss, is a "very, very brilliant person" but an "egoist" who left the agency to get rich. "He wanted to go out and write books and make movies E. [He] left because he was greedy and he wanted to make some money." It sure beats working for the government, in Moss' eyes.
"How much you gonna make as a government employee? You start at 40 [thousand], and the most I can make is $120,000. That's it! That's the max! Whereas, if you get a case like Lightning Strike and it sounds good and you can get a publisher to publish the book, the sky's the limit."
Nor was Moss especially generous in his characterization of NASA's astronaut corps. One of them, David Wolf, was wined, dined and taken to a strip club by Francis and others in an unsuccessful effort to win his cooperation in the bogus venture. But astronauts, at least according to FBI mouthpiece Moss, "stand above the law, they can do no wrong E. Congress didn't realize, we had a monster, and America's made that monster, and I think that sooner or later E when you take these so-called elite individuals and you put them in these positions, all you do [is] ask for problems." (Wolf, however, was never implicated in any wrongdoing.)
Transcriptions of the "Rock Bottom Tape" were sent recently to a number of reporters by anti-Lightning Strike activist Gayle Hight of Austin. She is the sister of Neal Jackson, a NASA subcontractor who last week was given three years probation for offering a $500 bribe to a Department of Defense official. Jackson was the last of the Lightning Strike defendants to be sentenced.
When contacted by the Press about the transcript, Moss stressed that his remarks to MENSA were his personal opinions and not the FBI's. Of course, he wouldn't have made them had he known that he was being recorded, he said.
"But now he's going to go back and try to fuck me, is that it?" Moss said of Maleche.
Not exactly. Maleche says that he had second thoughts about the wisdom of incurring the renewed attention of the FBI by circulating the tape. But by that time, Hight had a copy of the tape and was disseminating the transcript to the media.
Maybe Moss shouldn't worry. His boss, Houston FBI office director Mike Wilson, dismissed the transcript as inconsequential. "You've got a convicted felon that's doing this," Wilson said of Maleche. "There's nothing I've read in here that we haven't read in the papers already."
Maybe so, but he sure hasn't read it coming from his chief spokesman.