IT BOMBED IN D.C.
In one corner: professor Jonathan Turley and his George Washington law students, fighting for the 22 Rocky Flats grand jurors.
In the opposite corner: some of America's corporate heavyweights, represented by the country's most notorious brawlers--Washington lobbyists.
Somewhere in between: Colorado congressmen Dan Schaefer and David Skaggs.
Sitting ringside: whistleblower Jim Stone, who started it all.
Congress doesn't reconvene until next week, but this match has already inspired plenty of fancy footwork. For over a year, attorney Turley has been working behind the scenes to secure immunity for the jurors so that they can testify before Congress. What would they talk about? Their probe of environmental crimes at the nuclear weapons plant, their feelings about the deal cut with then-plant manager Rockwell International by then-U.S. Attorney Mike Norton, the grand jury report they submitted to Judge Sherman Finesilver, who sealed it and finally seven months later released a redacted version.
Hot stuff, sure. But relativity speaking, the grand jurors' testimony would drop a very small bomb.
Rockwell no longer runs Rocky Flats; Norton's deal with the defense contractor essentially granted it--and its employees--immunity from any claims stemming not just from incidents studied by the jurors, but from its entire tenure at the plant. It's the fallout from the grand jurors' testimony--from the long-anticipated appearance of these poster children of the plutonium industry--that so worries corporate America. Worries it enough that not just Rockwell, but EG&G (Rocky Flats' current manager, whose control of the plant recently was deemed unworthy of the safety bonuses that the Department of Energy once passed out like trick-or-treat candy), Westinghouse, Weyerhaeuser and Chemical Waste Management are among the companies reported to be lobbying Congress to keep the grand jurors silent.
Those companies are familiar names to Turley. They appear often in a report he authored in fall 1992 that detailed apparent corporate environmental crimes across the country which the Department of Justice had failed to prosecute. The incidents Turley studied make up the bulk of the thirty cases that Representative John Dingell's oversight and investigations subcommittee is currently investigating. And it is to Dingell's subcommittee that Turley now addresses his most ardent efforts to gain immunity for the grand jurors.
Two months ago, Turley was within a day of his goal. Then Dingell received a letter from Skaggs, the Democrat whose district includes Rocky Flats: "It's certainly both appropriate and necessary for Congress to exercise its oversight responsibilities to find out more about what took place at the plant and how Justice handled the criminal investigation," Skaggs wrote. "However, I do not think that it is necessary--or advisable--to grant immunity to the members of the grand jury to do this."
Citing concerns over the legal precedents, Skaggs requested that the Congressional Research Service analyze whether Congress had the authority to immunize the grand jurors. Within a week, he had his answer: no. Ding: The grand jurors lost that round. Dan Schaefer is the ranking Republican on Dingell's subcommittee and had taken an early lead in pushing for more information on Rocky Flats. "I wouldn't say Skaggs's letter to Dingell prompted us to back off," says spokeswoman Janel Guerrero. "It did prompt more legal research." And courtesy calls to local newspapers a few weeks ago. Among the "unresolved issues" Schaefer listed: jurisdictional problems, process problems, judicial problems. With a lineup like that, it's no bombshell that Schaefer now considers granting immunity only as "a last resort."
Skaggs, meanwhile, suggests that rather than focus on the grand jurors, Dingell's subcommittee should listen to representatives of Rockwell, the DOE and the DOJ. "The subcommittee should find out directly from these officials what they know, rather than trying to find out indirectly what the officials said in their testimony before the grand jury," he says. That, Skaggs adds, is what ex-representative Howard Wolpe's subcommittee did the year before, and "the Wolpe report is a much more detailed and insightful document than the report produced by the grand jurors."
It was also released a year ago and has yet to loosen any secrets at Rocky Flats.
That the wheels of justice move slowly--despite all the grease--comes as no surprise to Jim Stone. An engineer who was the main troubleshooter at Rocky Flats for six years (as well as a consultant on its original design), Stone was laid off in March 1986. He has always claimed he was fired for complaining about unsafe working conditions; when Rockwell wouldn't listen to his complaints, he took them--along with a DOE memo indicating that officials at the highest level knew they were violating environmental laws--to the FBI. That triggered the spectacular June 1989 raid that led to the formation of Special Grand Jury 89-2.
While grand jurors pored over documents seized by the FBI, Stone took his own legal action: He filed a false claims action against Rockwell on behalf of himself and the government, contending that the company's work at Rocky Flats was downright dangerous. If Stone wins, the government gets 70 percent of any judgment.
That's fine with him. All he wants is his day in court. Earlier this month Stone, along with a flock of Rockwell attorneys, was in Judge Jim Carrigan's courtroom for a hearing on the last remaining obstacle to his suit, originally set for trial in January 1993. If Carrigan rules in his favor, Stone's case could go to trial within ten months.
Stone, who fought alone for so long, thinks it's significant that the nuclear issue is hotter than ever. "I'm delighted that these things are falling into place," he says. "God sometimes helps this country survive.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.