True Lies

The FBI agent who raided Rocky Flats finally sounds off.

On Tuesday evening, after the following column went to press, Jon Lipsky got a call from the FBI telling him he was not allowed to discuss the Rocky Flats case. Lipsky read a statement to that effect at Wednesday's press conference and said nothing more. He was not wearing a suit.

On Monday, Jon Lipsky's biggest concern was whether he should wear a suit to the press conference where, for the first time, he would discuss publicly his concerns about the government turning the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant into a recreational area.

Lipsky had worn a suit on June 6, 1989, the day he'd led a raid on Rocky Flats. But then, he'd had to see a federal judge that morning to secure a search warrant -- the first ever served by the FBI on the federal government -- and at the plant, he says, he'd "be meeting with all the suits, including the Undersecretary of Energy." Lipsky, an FBI agent with an expertise in environmental crimes, had been on the case since 1987, when he and William Smith, an EPA agent also based in Denver, had started investigating conditions at Rocky Flats. It had taken Lipsky a long time to convince local environmental activists that he wasn't a plant, that he was seriously interested in conditions at a Department of Energy facility that was then still manufacturing plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons, weapons that might be used in the Cold War that had yet to melt away. But finally Lipsky had gotten to whistleblower Jim Stone, who'd told him about the missing plutonium and the incinerated plutonium.

In October 1988, Lipsky and Smith told U.S. Attorney Mike Norton that they wanted to raid Rocky Flats. He agreed, authorizing the agents to continue their investigation and even conduct aerial surveillance of the plutonium incinerator in building 771. By the following June, they were ready for Operation Desert Glow.

Rocky Flats officials thought the FBI was coming to give a briefing on environmental terrorists; they didn't know they were suspected of environmental crimes themselves. And then Lipsky showed up with the warrant.

The second day of the raid didn't go nearly as well: On instruction from U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, the Justice Department unsealed the 116-page affidavit Lipsky had used to secure the search warrant. That affidavit included an outline of the probe, as well as already-collected evidence of environmental crimes. The government's investigation into one of the government's most secret facilities was no longer a secret; plant managers now knew exactly what the agents were looking for.

Two months later, Colorado's first special grand jury was impaneled to consider the case of Rocky Flats. But that did not go according to plan, either. In the summer of 1991, the jurors were still hearing testimony when Lipsky learned that the Justice Department was looking to settle with Rockwell International, which had run the plant for the DOE. The jurors didn't find out about the deal until the judge told them that their work was done, that they could go home. Instead, they wrote a report outlining their investigation, one that named names and described events at Rocky Flats as an "ongoing criminal enterprise."

In March 1992, the judge sealed the grand jurors' report and signed off on a deal that fined Rockwell $18.5 million -- less than the company had been paid in bonuses for running the plant. And even though a redacted version of their report was later released, the grand jurors have been trying to tell the full story of Rocky Flats ever since. The most ambitious attempt yet came this past March with the publication of The Ambushed Grand Jury (www.ambushedgrandjury.com), the book that attorney Caron Balkany wrote with grand jury foreman Wes McKinley, secrecy rules be damned.

Unlike the grand jurors, Lipsky had gotten to tell at least some of the story to Congress. Representative Howard Wolpe, chair of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, Science, Space and Technology, had decided to look into the Justice Department deal with Rockwell soon after it was announced. In the fall of 1992, Lipsky was subpoenaed to testify. He told the subcommittee that there was plenty of evidence of midnight plutonium-burning during a period when the incinerator was supposed to be shut down -- never mind the Justice Department's insistence that the incinerator had not been operating illegally (Rockwell had required that statement before agreeing to the settlement). Lipsky said that he disagreed with the plea deal and had never agreed that no individuals should be prosecuted. In fact, he testified that he had substantial evidence against "the number one, two and three level managers."

The Wolpe Report, published on January 4, 1993, concluded that the Justice Department had "bargained away the truth" about what happened at Rocky Flats. Three days later, the FBI transferred Lipsky to Los Angeles -- assigning the environmental expert to a gang unit.

Lipsky, who's now eligible for retirement, is still with the FBI in Los Angeles. He left that city five days ago to drive across Arizona, stopping to see some of Colorado's still-beautiful sights before arriving in Denver for the Wednesday press conference, where he would speak publicly about Rocky Flats for the first time, flanked by Balkany, McKinley and Jacque Brever, a former plant employee who gave the FBI much of its inside information. Before this, Lipsky's only public declaration was a letter he wrote Congress in October 2001, which leads off The Ambushed Grand Jury: "I am an FBI agent. My superiors have ordered me to lie about a criminal investigation I headed in 1989. We were investigating the U.S. Department of Energy, but the U.S. Justice Department covered up the truth. I have refused to follow the orders to lie about what really happened during that criminal investigation of Rocky Flats."

Why tell the truth now? "I want our government to do good-government deeds," he explains. "I think it's really important with the Rocky Flats wildlife act." That's the 2001 law designed to turn the former nuclear-weapons plant into the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. But in making plans for the refuge, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service relied on the DOE's assurances that the area was being properly cleaned of contamination. And Lipsky, McKinley, Balkany and Brever have good reason to believe that the DOE wasn't telling the truth. "DOE made false representations to the regulators as the basis of cleanup plans," writes Brever, who left the plant in March 1992 and subsequently earned a master's degree in environmental policy. "DOE knew them to be false because the FBI investigation proved them false back in 1989-92. DOE resubmitted them to the regulators anyway, and as a result, large areas of land contaminated with radioactive and toxic wastewater were omitted from the cleanup."

What happens here next will affect not just Colorado, but the entire country. "This could be a cookie cutter for the rest of the complex and other sites," says Lipsky. "We need to get the word out."

And he's just the man to do it.


Fact or Fiction?

Jon Lipsky almost made it into Silver City, the movie John Sayles filmed in Colorado last fall that will have its Denver premiere on September 10 at the Paramount Theatre.

Before writing his political potboiler -- which focuses on a gubernatorial candidate who just could be George W. Bush, in a Western state that could be Texas except for the fact that it's clearly Colorado -- Sayles studied local history. He dug into the good, the bad and the very ugly, including the 1989 raid on Rocky Flats. Initially, the script had the grizzled EPA veteran who helps unravel the mystery of Silver City reveal that he'd led that raid, too. "We cut that line out just for length," Sayles says.

But Rocky Flats is never far from the discussion. Sayles is currently talking up Silver City across the country, and he says Rocky Flats comes up in at least half of the interviews. Corporate polluters and Kobe Bryant -- that's what the national press knows about Colorado. (Conveniently, Kobe and Rockwell International, which ran Rocky Flats at the time of the raid, retained the same law firm.) Reports Sayles: "When people ask, 'Why did you shoot in Colorado?,' I tell them that there's this great visual metaphor of a state that people move to because it's so beautiful, but then you have the environmental problems."

For Silver City, he decided to focus on environmental problems below the surface -- leach fields outside the mines that sent toxic waste into the groundwater and into Colorado's pristine lakes. "I couldn't have it all," he says. "Silver City is supposed to be an old mining town, so I got into the mining more than the nuclear waste. But they both left the same legacy, of 'What the hell, we've got to do this, make the money today, worry about the consequences later.' You find it not just in Colorado, but across the country."

Silver City was filmed here, though, and while Colorado looks plenty corrupt in the film, it also looks beautiful. In one stunning scene, Chris Cooper -- playing Dickie Pilager, the gubernatorial candidate who's the not-so-smart son of a veteran politician -- is riding the range with Kris Kristofferson, the corrupt businessman who's made it all possible. They're supposed to be near Silver City, the contaminated area Kristofferson wants to develop into pricey vacation homes, but the scene was actually shot sixteen miles upwind of Denver. "You look down across the highway and you see Rocky Flats," says Sayles.

Rocky Flats is never far from the discussion. Sayles grew up near a plant in upstate New York where General Electric had been putting radioactive waste under the parking lot; he knows just how hard it is to truly clean up the land -- rather than erase the past. Rocky Flats, a former nuclear-weapons plant, is now categorized as a wildlife refuge, a recreational haven for local residents. Advises Sayles: "Just leave the three-headed squirrels alone."

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