The Cloud Over Lightning Strike
Things were going well for David Proctor in the summer of 1993. The 34-year-old West Texas native -- a pudgy, bespectacled man who was a self-described "band queer" at Abilene Cooper High -- was raising a family at his new home in League City just south of the Johnson Space Center complex, where he had worked for five years as an engineer in NASA's Life Sciences Division on what he calls "the cutting edge of technology." When he set out for work on the morning of August 2, 1993, Proctor had no idea that by the end of the day he would be ensnared in the FBI's "Operation Lightning Strike," an event that would shatter his life and leave him with a drastically altered view of his country.
The $2 million undercover sting was put in play to root out purported widespread corruption in the aerospace industry and among high-ranking NASA administrators, but to date it has netted only a handful of small fish like Proctor. Now, as he awaits trial on charges that he accepted bribes and disclosed proprietary government information, Proctor has begun to tell his side of the story, claiming he was set up to commit innocent mistakes --not crimes --and then had his constitutional rights trampled as the FBI pressured him into implicating higher-ups at NASA. And he says he did just that --a point on which even the man Proctor portrays as his chief persecutor agrees -- but that the U.S. Department of Justice has ignored the evidence he gathered and has no intention of pursuing charges against high-ranking NASA officials.
Others whose lives were touched by Operation Lightning Strike also have recently broken their silence on the sting, joining Proctor in accusing the government of having crossed the line that separates an investigation from entrapment and raising questions about the scope and intent of the operation. Even before their complaints were voiced, the Department of Justice had opened an investigation into allegations of misconduct by investigators in Operation Lightning Strike, while the FBI agent who engineered the sting had accused the U.S. Attorney's office in Houston of dragging its feet in prosecuting cases he had assembled.
But all of that was in an unimaginable future for David Proctor on that Monday morning last year when, as on most workdays, he awoke before the sun and arrived at the JSC complex at about 6 a.m. Proctor often dressed casually, but on that day he wore a business suit and a tie for an appointment with officials from aerospace contractor Martin Marietta at their Clear Lake offices. Around 2:30 that afternoon -- while meeting with the Martin Marietta management team that was working with NASA on a joint U.S./Russian space project -- Proctor received a page on his digital beeper. The message was from a friend, 53-year-old research scientist Jim Verlander, who worked for Krug Life Sciences. Proctor had been employed at Krug for three years before signing on with the space agency, and for more than a year he and Verlander had been doing some moonlighting work together. When Proctor returned the page, Verlander told the younger man that they needed to talk. Proctor arranged to rendezvous with Verlander 30 minutes later at the Grandy's on the corner of El Camino Real and Bay Area Boulevard, not far from Martin Marietta.
Rice University Owls Football vs. Prairie View A&M University Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 22, 2:30pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. UCF Knights Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 29, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. Florida Atlantic University Owls Football
TicketsSat., Nov. 5, 2:30pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulane University Football
TicketsSat., Nov. 12, 11:00am
A year later, Proctor recalls thinking how the normally busy fast food restaurant seemed eerily empty that afternoon, with only a few customers occupying tables around the edges of the interior. Verlander wasn't there yet, so Proctor went to the counter and ordered a Coke and some peach cobbler. He took his snack to a table and began going over some work he had brought with him. Suddenly, he was approached by two men, and as he rose to meet them, one flashed a badge and identified himself as Hal Francis, an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The other identified himself as an agent of the NASA Inspector General's office. One of the men informed Proctor that they had been watching him for "some time" and their presence was related to his off-hour dealings with Jim Verlander. They advised him to sit back down. He did.
"At that time they say, 'David, you're in serious trouble,'" Proctor recounts. "'But you have a choice. You can either leave, be arrested and go to prison. Or, you can come with us and help yourself in this matter.'
"And I said, 'Well, I guess I'll go with you.' And they said, 'Okay.' So we got up from the table, and they offered to let me finish my Coke and peach cobbler. I thanked them, but said that I didn't think that was a good idea."
Proctor's two new keepers escorted him to a car, where a third man was waiting behind the wheel. Leaving Proctor's car at the restaurant, the foursome headed north on the Gulf Freeway toward Houston. Proctor says no one said a word, although inside his head he was carrying on a frantic conversation with himself.
"I just kept telling myself, 'Don't panic,'" he remembers.
Proctor was driven to a facility near the Astrodome that he would later come to know as "the warehouse," where he was instructed to take a seat at a small table in an 8-by-10 room. The agents shut the door, leaving him alone in the room, which also contained a large whiteboard. On it was written Proctor's name in felt marker. Beside his name were the words "Crimes Committed."
"And they must have had 12 or 15 things that I had supposedly done. Things like bribery, conspiracy, mail fraud, income tax evasion," says Proctor. "And off to the side they had the [corresponding] number of years in prison and the fines. The time in prison added up to 60-something years and the fines were over $1.2 million."
But as Proctor continued to check his surroundings, the scene took on even more of a Orwellian air.
"They had pictures of me all over this room," he explains. "I'm not saying little pictures. They had blown-up pictures of me. Pictures like two-thirds my size. It was very surreal. Even now I can't believe it."
The black-and-white photos were mounted on foamboard and propped against the walls. They caught Proctor in seemingly innocent actions -- talking on a pay phone or picking up a computer from Verlander. Others had been shot through windows and revealed the interior of his home. Also in the room were boxes of audio and video tapes.
"I mean the room was just filled with the stuff," says Proctor. "I never knew if I was on any of the tapes or not."
After he had been in the room for what seemed like an eternity but was probably just a few minutes, the FBI agent returned and asked Proctor to accompany him to his office, where the walls were adorned with law enforcement plaques and medallions.
"He sits me down and then says, 'Well, what do you think?'" says Proctor. "And I say, 'Well, I don't know, you tell me.' And he says, 'Like I told you back there in Clear Lake, you're in a lot of trouble. But you have a choice. You can leave now. Or, after you see now what has happened, you can go with us and help yourself.'
"And I asked them what it meant to help myself. And they said, 'If you agree to help yourself, we're going to take you to another place here in a few minutes, talk to you, and then we'll tell you more about that. But you need to make a decision."
Proctor says at that point -- even though he still had not been directly told what he was accused of doing -- he told the agent that he thought that it was in his best interest to help himself.
"And he said, 'Okay. However, there are two ground rules. You cannot contact an attorney. If you contact an attorney, all deals are off. You will immediately be arrested and go to prison. The second thing is, you cannot tell anybody about this. If you tell anybody about this you will be arrested and go to prison. The only two people you can tell are your wife and your pastor, and we recommend neither."
For the next four months only his wife would know about the so-called "deal," which, as it turned out, didn't help David Proctor at all.
The series of events that brought Proctor to the FBI office in Houston actually had begun several years earlier in St. Louis with a consummate good ol' boy named Hal Francis. A stocky redhead with a deep drawl, the 35-year-old Francis was born and raised in Mantachie, Mississippi (population 800). He claims he still gets lost in Houston, although he's lived in the area for more than three years. But somehow you get the idea that such mild self-deprecation is all for show.
After a brief turn at Mississippi State, Francis joined the Air Force, where he says he demonstrated an aptitude for foreign languages. "The next thing I knew I was a part of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland," Francis explains. "Then I was doing my time for the government, so to speak, in Japan with a pair of headphones on, listening to Soviets talk back and forth."
Francis left the military in 1983, and went to work in sales and marketing for a defense contractor. But five years later -- about the same time David Proctor was joining NASA -- he was approached about a new joint operation by the National Security Agency and FBI to combat domestic terrorism. Coming off a bitter divorce and looking for a new challenge, Francis applied to, and soon found himself at, the FBI training center in Quantico, Virginia.
"I was hired almost specifically to work terrorism and foreign counter-intelligence and never worked a day of it," he laughs. Instead of being caught up in foreign intrigue, Francis wound up in St. Louis, where the FBI hoped to draw on his background in ferreting out corruption within the city's large defense industries.
For the next three years Francis was involved in developing and executing an undercover sting known as "Operation Brown Bag." At the conclusion of Brown Bag -- which resulted in guilty pleas by more than 30 defense contractors -- he was transferred to the FBI office in Houston.
"I walked into the office here, literally, and sat down with management," Francis says. "They were familiar with what I had done in St. Louis and asked me if I could do something similar to that down here in Houston."
Francis says he asked, "Who's your
"NASA," was the response.
Shortly before Francis arrived in Houston in the summer of 1991, an official with NASA's Inspector General's office had approached the FBI about investigating allegations of corruption within the close-knit space industry that is the heart and soul of the Clear Lake area. So, in July of that year, Francis, another FBI agent and the NASA official sat down to plot strategy and review the more than 300 complaints -- many of them anonymous -- that had been lodged with the IG's office against various space agency employees and contractors. Francis says his team weeded the complaints down to "25 that were worth a shit." Those basically were people or companies that had been the object of multiple complaints, or complaints that involved sizable amounts of money.
"What we were interested in was where there was collusion on contracts worth millions of dollars -- those kinds of allegations. Primarily because this United States Attorney's office here locally at that time had kind of an unofficial mandate that if there wasn't an economic loss of [at least] $100,000, don't bother us with it. It had to be something rather substantial."
According to Francis, most of the allegations that met the FBI's criteria centered on General Electric's government services division and JSC's Life Sciences division. Francis and his team also hoped to net some current and former top NASA administrators. Once the investigative team had settled on who they were going target, they had to figure out how. Francis decided to resurrect the character he had used while working undercover in St. Louis: fictitious businessman John Clifford.
"I had just finished two-and-a-half years of what's called deep cover in St. Louis where I had been the John Clifford character up there," he says. "We had protected [the Clifford character] pretty well ... in St. Louis, no one went to trial, so it didn't become a matter of public record." Francis says he was comfortable with the character's persona: a white-collar type he describes as having more money and bullshit than brains.
"The only difference was, I wasn't going to be quite as sleazy down here as I was up there," laughs Francis.
In addition to the encore for John Clifford, Francis and the other agents also concocted a bogus company -- Southern Technologies Diversified -- to front their investigation. Armed with instant legitimacy, thanks to a FBI-generated Standards and Poors record, along with Atlanta bankers willing to vouch for the solvency of STD, Francis set out in December 1991 to cajole and bribe his way into the lucrative inner sanctum of JSC. But perhaps revealingly -- at least in the minds of critics of the operation -- the planned failed to work right away.
"I had more doors shut in my face the first week than I ever have in my life," Francis admits. "One of the things that we were told through all of the informants that we'd developed and people that we talked to was that the [NASA] community itself was a very closed, close-knit community and that you kind of had to be vouched for to be accepted. You had to have someone to kind of lead you by the hand through the door." What he also needed, Francis decided, was a product.
After conferring with renal specialists at the University of Texas Medical Center, Francis seized upon the idea of passing off a used ultra-sound machine as a portable lithotripter -- a device that crushes kidney stones -- that purportedly could be developed for use on the space shuttle. The idea was especially appealing to Francis, given the fact that some shuttle astronauts had developed kidney stones while in space. The agent also purchased warehouse space in Maryland, which he would pass off as his manufacturing plant when he took his targets there to convince them of his legitimacy. He would also take them to fancy restaurants, topless bars and fishing trips in the Florida Keys, flashing cash and talking trash along the way.
Finally, Francis says, he was prepared to set his trap.
"We happened to have a couple of individuals who were part of our major target list that did consulting work," says Francis. "We approached them and said that we were in the business of fronting a major piece of medical technology into the NASA system, and would they be interested in representing us in this matter. And then we laid out the deal. 'We got a piece of shit, we don't know if it works. We don't care if it works. We're only interested in the commercial application of it and want to use NASA's name to market it commercially. We just want NASA to throw some money at it.' And still, that didn't upset anyone in the whole scheme of things."
According to Francis, the first person he approached with the fake device was Neal Jackson of Space Inc., a small company that Jackson and his wife, Karen, operated near JSC. Jackson, a Texas A&M graduate and military reservist who served in Operation Desert Storm, was not averse to bending the rules when it came to doing business, according to Francis (Jackson's lawyer said his client would not comment for this story).
Jackson became John Clifford's entree into the NASA business world. In fact, Francis claims Jackson pretty much took over the lithotripter project and signed a personal services contract with Clifford on April Fools' Day of 1992. "Both Jackson and his wife insisted they be paid in cash with no [Form] 1099," says Francis. "They stated on tape their intent was to avoid paying any taxes on that money. That generally lends itself to further investigation."
The next week, Francis says, Jackson began taking John Clifford to meet the right people -- such as P.J. Weitz, the acting director at JSC, who Francis says was polite but basically uninterested in anything he had to say. The two men also paid a call on a project manager at Krug Life Sciences, who Francis says also was cordial but noncommittal. But on their way out of the building Clifford and Jackson bumped into Jim Verlander, who Francis claims took an immediate interest in the lithotripter project. The following day, according to Francis, Verlander signed on to the John Clifford team, but only in a limited role.
"He was very noncommitted about being able to assist us in anything other than an advisory capacity," says Francis. "In other words, 'I'll tell you what you need to know and where you need to go, but I'm not physically going to do anything that would constitute a conflict of interest.' And we told him that was fine. No money exchanged hands." But, says Francis, he agreed to pay Verlander $5,000 a month.
A couple of days later, as Francis was driving back to Texas from Atlanta, where he had shown Jackson STD's "headquarters," he received a page on his beeper from Verlander and, he says, pulled into a motel across from a Denny's in Opalicka, Alabama, hooked up his recording equipment, and returned the call.
"Verlander says, 'Listen, I've been talking to some people over at NASA and there's a guy I want to bring on the payroll but it's going to cost you some money," according to Francis. "I asked him how much money, and he said $3,000."
However, Francis says Verlander would not identify the recipient. "He says, 'You're just going to have to trust me on this. But in the meantime let's just call him the mole.' Not until the end would he give the guy up. I mean, if I'm ever in another undercover operation, I want Jim Verlander on my team, because he just refused to give the guy up even when I came down on him with both feet."
David Proctor confirms that in April 1992 he was contacted by his friend, Jim Verlander, about a moonlighting opportunity with a man named John Clifford who wanted to submit an "unsolicited proposal" to NASA. (The space agency basically has two methods of procurement: solicited proposals on which NASA produces a statement of work and takes bids; and unsolicited proposals which can be submitted by anybody -- from anywhere and at anytime -- and are evaluated within NASA. Sometimes unsolicited proposals are funded by the agency.)
Proctor says -- and Francis confirms -- that he had no direct dealings with John Clifford, other than one brief, passing encounter. But he says he was told by Verlander that Clifford had acquired technology from the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency that was capable of ultrasonic imaging at one-millimeter resolution.
"I didn't question that," Proctor says. "The reason I didn't question that is because I'd been working in advanced technologies with Sandia Labs and some others. At that time our national laboratories had a lot of technology that was developed during the Cold War, and all of a sudden the Cold War was over. To keep their doors open, they were looking to export this technology to the private sector and other government agencies.
"So, Clifford essentially gave Jim a set of specifications [the lithotripter] and asked him to write a proposal. Jim actually penned the proposal. And what I did was act as sort of a technical consultant."
And in that role Proctor says his first piece of advice to Clifford, via Verlander, was that NASA did not need a lithotripter and that they should market the device as a soft-tissue imaging system.
"I told them to get away from the lithotripter because that was kind of stupid," he says. "So what Jim did was take those specifications that [Clifford] had given, wrote the proposal in a format that was acceptable to NASA, asked me to 'red-line' it, which means to review it and make sure the language is correct, and he then handed that proposal over to John Clifford. For that, Jim came over to my house one night with $3,000 in cash. I had never asked for money. Jim brought over the $3,000. And, hey, if a guy wants to pay me $3,000, that's fine."
Proctor also acknowledges that he did his red-lining on a $10,000 computer Verlander provided him, one he requested because he would not do what he considered innocent after-hours work on NASA equipment, much less NASA time.
"I just did not have the equipment or horsepower of a computer at home to do that," says Proctor. "And I told Jim I would not use the computers at NASA. Jim went back to Clifford. And Clifford basically said to write down what we needed. Jim came back and I told him I needed Macintosh Quadra 700 with a laser printer and large screen monitor. My agreement at the time was that it was a loan."
The proposal was sent back to Clifford -- who promised Proctor and Verlander 25 percent of any profits -- and was then submitted to JSC's Medical Sciences Division and was reviewed and rejected by Dr. John Charles.
"I thought it was innocent," says Proctor. "I didn't think anything of it. If he had the technology he said he did, I think NASA and the American public could have benefited from it. As it turned out, it was just a big lie."
On that bizarre afternoon more than a year later at the FBI warehouse near the Astrodome, a frightened, intimidated and confused David Proctor, after deciding to "help himself," was driven to the Sheraton-Astrodome Hotel and escorted to a suite with a big conference table.
"And there are all these guys that are walking around with guns," recalls Proctor. "It's like something out of James Bond. And I immediately recognize some of the faces, because they were the ones in Grandy's. I don't think I really admitted to anything that day. But I would have admitted to being on the grassy knoll."
Jim Verlander was also there.
Proctor was told that two agents would be assigned to him and that to keep his end of the deal to "help himself" he would have to make surreptitious tape recordings and obtain documents to build cases against others -- higher-ups -- in the community of NASA employees and contractors. For nine weeks, Proctor says, he went about the business of trying to get his coworkers and bosses to incriminate themselves. Proctor says the agents continued to tell him to keep his mouth shut and to not contact an attorney. All the while he repeatedly heard the name of Assistant U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez in connection with his case.
"And finally, I said, 'I want to meet this man,'" says Proctor. "And they say, 'Okay.'
"So, I go into the federal building and meet Martinez and this guy named Ed Gallagher. Sat down. And this is something I will never forget. Sat across from Abe Martinez and he said, 'Mr. Proctor, the next time I see you, you will have an attorney.' And he pointed his finger at me. 'The next time I see you, you will have an attorney.' And these two agents sort of slumped down in their chairs.
"And I said, 'I was told it was in my best interest not to have an attorney,'" says Proctor. "And he said, 'The next time I see you, you will have an attorney.' So, guess what? I went and got an attorney."
Armed with legal counsel, Proctor went on doing the government's undercover bidding. The FBI would provide him with "scripts" before his regular meetings with members of the NASA management team -- such as Life Sciences Division chief Carolyn Huntoon, who now heads JSC. Proctor says he would go into the meetings and try to edge his targets toward uttering a semblance of the words the FBI had written, words that would incriminate them. Proctor was also given a device to record his phone conversations.
"Nobody ever knew," he recalls, shaking his head in disgust -- partly with himself and partly with the government. "Nobody ever knew."
Proctor continued the charade until late November of last year, when he was informed that the sting was being terminated in the wake of a Channel 11 report that broke the news of the undercover probe. "And I got a call from Carolyn Huntoon, saying, 'Dave, your name has been implicated in this.' And I say, 'Oh, really?'" In December, NBC's Dateline reported that astronaut David Wolf had been a target of the probe, and detailed how an undercover FBI agent posing as a businessman had treated Wolf to a night on the town at an expensive Houston restaurant and a topless club. Proctor says he spoke briefly with the NBC crew preparing the Wolf story, an exchange that did not please the U.S. Attorney's office, which demanded a meeting with him at the federal building in downtown Houston.
"Mr. Martinez asked me, 'Why did you talk to the press?' And I said, 'I just did.' He said, 'Do not speak to the press. If you speak to the press, all deals are off. And I asked him about my First Amendment rights. And Martinez repeated his words, 'Do not speak to the press.'"
On February 22, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office staged a press conference to formally acknowledge Operation Lightning Strike and announce its results. Nine people -- including Proctor -- and one small aerospace contractor were charged with crimes ranging from bribery to knowingly accepting government documents that contained inside information on bidding for contracts. All -- expect for Proctor -- would eventually enter arranged guilty pleas. Of those who pleaded guilty, all but one would receive small probated sentences and fines.
The lone exception was 54-year-old Vincent Maleche, who had been a division director at Martin Marietta's government services division. Maleche was fined $2,500 and served two months in jail over the summer. (In August, Neal Jackson and his partner, Dale Brown, would also be hit with similar charges. Jackson is in the process of arranging a plea bargain. Brown apparently will stand trial. Jim Verlander has pleaded guilty to charges of bribery and conspiracy, but has not been sentenced. He declined to be interviewed for this story.)
When the cover was formally pulled off of Operation Lightning Strike, U.S. Attorney Gaynelle Griffin Jones claimed it had uncovered widespread corruption among JSC contractors. But in reality, the expensive, free-wheeling investigation had resulted in charges against only a handful of mid-level managers and one small business. Martin Marietta and General Electric agreed to jointly pay a $1 million settlement to help defray the cost of the $2 million probe. Martin Marietta had acquired GE's government services division in 1993, while the investigation was ongoing.
In January federal prosecutors had offered Proctor a plea bargain that would have required him to plead guilty to accepting a bribe. But he rejected the deal, and in June he was named in a six-count federal indictment. Proctor is basically accused of accepting bribes, the cash and the computer, and of disclosing proprietary information -- a NASA document called A Proposal for Research in Biomedical Instrumentation for Manned Mission Life Sciences, which he contends is non-sensitive material.
Proctor's first defense attorney -- to whom he paid a $10,000 retainer -- was ineligible to represent him because he also represented another Lightning Strike defendant. Because his second attorney had merely given advice to another defendant, he, too, was disqualified. His third attorney -- appointed by the court -- recently moved for a continuance because of a heart problem. Proctor has been given a second court-appointed lawyer.
While Proctor -- who had undergone both psychological and physical therapy to deal with the stress -- may have violated internal NASA policy by failing to notify his superiors of his after-hours consulting, he refuses to plead guilty to the criminal charges because, he says, the government has yet to show him "in West Texas lingo" what he did wrong.
However, he and Francis agree on one point: Proctor's undercover work for the government did cause others, including some management types, to incriminate themselves. They also agree it is unlikely those people will ever be charged.
In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno earlier this month outlining his complaints about Operation Lightning Strike, Proctor wrote, "It was clear at the time that I had given the agent enough evidence to indict several high-ranking officials at NASA for illegal acts. It was also clear I was asked to stop gathering information to prevent any further implication of these NASA officials so that the [Department of Justice] would not be compelled to prosecute them."
While Francis, who is no longer with the FBI, for months has spoken freely and in great detail about his undercover derring-do, Proctor says that until only recently he had been intimidated into silence by the Justice Department and FBI. Almost everyone else connected to the receiving end of Lightning Strike has remained silent, including the ordinarily verbose defense attorneys who represent the other 11 defendants and two companies accused of wrongdoing. Even most of those who were caught on the periphery of Operation Lightning Strike have refused to speak on-the-record. One exception is 75-year-old John Crenshaw, who has been in the aerospace business for more than 40 years.
A consultant for Winzen International, a San Antonio-based aerospace company, Crenshaw was a founding member of SWAPRA, the Southwest Aerospace Professional Representatives Association. Crenshaw is a man with wide contacts in and around JSC, where it helps when doing business to be a SWAPRA member or to know one.
Crenshaw was introduced to John Clifford by Neal Jackson, a good friend for several years. At the time, Winzen International was hunting for investment capital, and Clifford signaled an interest in providing some. Clifford also expressed a desire for a contact in Washington D.C. who could present his lithotripter. Crenshaw opened the door for Clifford to meet James Beggs, who had resigned as NASA administrator in 1985 after he was indicted by the Justice Department for allegedly defrauding the government during his tenure as an executive with General Dynamics, where Crenshaw had previously been employed. The charges were later dropped.
"I told Clifford that he didn't need me and to call [J.M. Beggs & Associates], this is what they do," remembers Crenshaw. "But he said he'd rather that I make the introductory call. So I did. Even that to me smacks of attempted entrapment." And, according to Crenshaw, so was the manner in which the government bagged Beggs' associate James Robertson, and, almost, Beggs himself.
Beggs and Robertson met Clifford and voiced interest in the lithotripter. Beggs, an engineer, even went to the phony manufacturing plant in Maryland where he was fooled by the device. "He didn't know he was dealing with a liar," Crenshaw explains. Robertson, however, handled most of the company's dealings with Clifford, accompanying him, Crenshaw and Jackson on one of the fishing trips to the Florida Keys.
Francis says during one of their meetings he offered to provide Beggs and Robertson with low-bid information about a $600,000 Defense Department contract unrelated to the lithotripter project. "I originally had a meeting with Beggs, Robertson and [another Beggs partner]," he says. "I explained to them that it was a done deal, that we had inside guys that were going to give us low-bid information on the contract. Mr. Beggs, quite frankly, said, 'Let's go take a look at it.'
"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.
Francis, meanwhile has voiced his own complaints about the aftermath of Operation Lightning Strike, accusing the U.S. Attorney's office of not wanting to pursue prosecutable cases against higher-ups at NASA.
He mentions "some of the other high-profile people down at [JSC], for instance, that haven't been charged. Let's say, for example, [astronaut] David Wolf. There are also a lot of questions about Carolyn Huntoon that need to be answered. Questions regarding her management of Life Sciences. Questions of conflict of interest ... and other possible improprieties that I'm not at liberty to discuss." (Earlier this year Channel 11 raised questions about the propriety of Huntoon's friendship with the owner of a Clear Lake company called TransTech, which won a contract to conduct translations for joint U.S./Russian space projects. And last week NASA released a 1992 letter from Huntoon to Beggs suggesting that she knew more about the proposal to acquire funding for the lithotripter than had previously been acknowledged. Huntoon did not respond to a request for an interview with the Press.)
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney Gaynelle Griffin Jones, when contacted by the Press about Francis' complaint, would say only that she believed Francis had been misquoted. However, shortly after her interview with this paper, it was reported that Jones has asked FBI Director Louis Freeh to explore methods of keeping former agents from talking to the media. Jones' request has Francis steamed.
"She's done everything in her power to find some way to shut me up," he charges. "I take it as a personal affront anytime someone tries to abridge my First Amendment rights to say what the hell I want to."
David Proctor considers Francis' outrage just another droll irony in his ordeal, given that he believes he was gagged for so long by threats from the federal government.
"If anything good come out of this," says Proctor, "is that people should know what the government does to other people. Not that I'm on a mission from God, but it's my duty to let other people know about this, so they can really know what our government is like. We live in a Nazi state. Maybe change starts with me."
Regardless of the outcome of his trial, Proctor believes he already has been made to pay the price of other people's blind ambition and secret agendas.
"At first, I thought I was nuts," he says. "This sort of thing doesn't happen to a guy from West Texas."
Proctor still works at NASA, but, while awaiting disposition of his case, he has been transferred from JSC's Life Sciences Division to its Plant Engineering Division, where he handles paperwork for what is basically the complex's maintenance operation.
"I'm relaxed now," he says. "But in terms of my NASA career, I no longer have a NASA career. I hope to clear myself, but NASA management has a long memory."
Meanwhile, former FBI agent Hal Francis, who says he left the agency this spring seeking another new challenge, is preparing to cash in on his last one. He recently signed a contract with a reputable publishing house to write a book about Operation Lightning Strike.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.