David Proctor, the NASA engineer enticed into committing crimes by an agent of the government for which he worked, is going to prison.
Despite his guilty plea that resulted in his sentencing late last month, Proctor still maintains he did nothing wrong, and he claims that the prison time he was given is punishment for his public criticism of Operation Lightning Strike, the FBI undercover investigation of the Johnson Space Center and the Clear Lake area's aerospace community. ("The Cloud Over Lightning Strike," Houston Press, October 27.)
The lone NASA employee to be charged in the FBI sting, Proctor was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon to five months in prison and ordered to spend three years on probation after his release and pay $11,000 in fines and restitution. It's the stiffest sentence to result from Lightning Strike so far.
"At no time did I feel like I broke the law," says Proctor, who was chided by Harmon for describing his actions as "mistakes." He had earlier pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, one count of violating federal procurement regulations, one count of accepting a gratuity and three counts of accepting bribes. The charges all stemmed from his efforts on behalf of an FBI "front" company that was seeking NASA funding for a fraudulent piece of space equipment.
A former worker in JSC's Life Sciences division, Proctor was the only one of the initial 12 Lightning Strike defendants to publicly criticize the tactics of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office in conducting the sting -- which, despite a price tag of close to $2 million over an 18-month period, has yet to result in the arrest of anyone higher than mid-level managers and subcontractors, all relatively small fish such as Proctor.
He initially had vowed to plead innocent and fight the charges in court (only one other defendant has not pleaded guilty to charges). But Proctor says the third attorney to represent him advised him that he lacked the resources to mount an entrapment defense.
"I wanted to show that the sting operation was illegal," explains Proctor. "I found out very quickly [after getting an attorney] that wasn't possible. It wasn't possible because of the way they [the FBI] write their own rules. They write the rules to conduct business the way they want to conduct business, and the courts have upheld those rules. So, although I may not agree with it, it is apparently lawful for federal agents to go around lying about certain things and doing them."
Proctor says when he was first approached by the FBI in August 1993, he was threatened with immediate arrest if he contacted an attorney. The lawyer he finally hired six months later was disqualified for a conflict of interest, and the second lawyer Proctor retained fell ill. His third lawyer was a court-appointed public defender.
Proctor eventually cooperated with the FBI, wearing a wire and secretly recording his conversations with JSC co-workers and superiors as he worked undercover for several months. He says it was obvious to him that the FBI had targeted six high-level NASAand space industry executives, including George Abbey, the assistant director at JSC, and Carolyn Huntoon, who was then Proctor's boss in the Life Sciences division and is now the director at JSC.
"It wasn't information that was directly related to her,"Proctor says of the fruits of his undercover work against Huntoon, "as much as it was activities of people that surrounded her." (Huntoon has consistently declined comment on Lightning Strike.)
Proctor claims the Justice Department is aware of "criminal wrongdoing" by others who haven't been charged in the sting, yet has refused to prosecute "based on the political climate."
Statements like that didn't endear him to the government, and during his sentencing Assistant U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez gave Proctor little credit for assisting the FBI. Instead, Martinez claimed Proctor's undercover efforts had been of little value and said that the defendant made the prosecution's work more difficult by initially refusing to plead guilty. In asking Harmon for a sentence that "would reflect the seriousness" of the crime, Martinez told the judge that Proctor had been "a merchant of greed and deception."
But Proctor did have some support from an unexpected source -- James Verlander, who acted as the middleman between Proctor and FBI agent Hal Francis, who was masquerading as fictitious businessman John Clifford.
Verlander, a former Krug Life Sciences employee who was sentenced last month to two months on probation for his own role in the sting, surprised everyone in the courtroom for Proctor's sentencing by rising and voicing his objections to Proctor's punishment.
"Speaking out cost David Proctor," says Verlander, who initially approached Proctor for his help in fine-tuning a proposal to NASA for the now-infamous "lithotripter," a non-functioning kidney-stone smashing device devised by Hal Francis/John Clifford.
Verlander says Martinez's assessment of Proctor's work was much different before Proctor went public with his criticism of Lightning Strike. He says he was present when Martinez told him and Proctor that they would both be rewarded with probation for their cooperation, citing their undercover work on behalf of the government in investigating Futron Corp. Adding credence to Verlander's claim is the fact the government last week charged 54-year-old Michael C. Trachtenberg with selling NASA documents obtained through his employment with Futron to an undercover government agent.
After Proctor's sentencing, Martinez rejected the assertion that the former NASA worker had received a stiffer penalty because of his outspokenness. Martinez instead pointed to the fact that Proctor was the only employee of the space agency caught up in the probe. "He used his position to recommend the funding of bogus equipment," said the prosecutor, adding that prison time for Proctor would send a clear message to others in similar positions of public trust. (Proctor has denied knowing the lithotripter was a fraud and says he considered the after-hours work he performed to be innocent moonlighting.)
Proctor expects to be assigned to a federal prison within the next six weeks to begin serving his sentence. But Proctor, whose story was chronicled on CBS Evening News' "Eye on America" segment on the day of his sentencing, seems to have adopted the attitude that the worst isn't so bad once it happens.
"[The government originally] told me that if I didn't help them they would smear my name in the press, and my name has been in the press," says Proctor. But he was also threatened with the loss of his family and friends and that, Proctor says, has not been close to coming true.
"My friends have supported me greatly," he says. "My family has supported me greatly. I've have made new friends. My church is behind me. So their threat did not come through. In fact, it's been just the opposite."
But lightning still seems to find David Proctor. Following the news of his sentencing, Proctor says, he was fired from the Galleria-area engineering job he had found after losing his position at
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