Political Animals

By the time he was on the homestretch of his 1,200-mile tour of the Fourth Congressional District, independent candidate Wes McKinley had had enough of Marvin the mule. Especially since the Greeley Tribune had passed over both the name-party candidates--Democrat Guy Kelley and Republican victor Bob Schaefer--in order to endorse Marvin over even McKinley himself.

True, in this election season, horse sense had been a rare commodity. But now enough was enough, and McKinley left Marvin back at the ranch while he made his last campaign stop in Denver.

Although Denver doesn't fall inside the sprawling Fourth District, it houses the inspiration for McKinley's run: the federal courthouse. That's where McKinley was sworn in on August 1, 1989, as a member of Colorado's first special grand jury, charged with investigating alleged environmental crimes at the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant. And last Wednesday, that's where McKinley held one final press conference and campaign rally. (When two federal cops showed up to investigate the proceedings, that doubled the turnout.)

In the seven years that separated those events, McKinley had served as foreman of the grand jury, which spent eighteen months investigating evidence seized by the FBI during a June 1989 raid of the plant, and then months more stewing over the presiding judge's refusal to release the report it had written. Instead, Judge Sherman Finesilver sealed the deal the Justice Department cut with Rockwell International, which had been running the plant for the Department of Energy back in 1989 and had earned more in bonuses than the $18.5 million fine Rockwell would have to pay as part of the settlement.

The jurors' displeasure with the way the justice system worked--or failed to work--first surfaced publicly in the pages of Westword and then in front of this same federal courthouse. In November 1992 McKinley stood before it as he read aloud from a letter the jurors had sent to then-president-elect Bill Clinton, urging him to look into their case.

Clinton has yet to respond.
Enough. When he'd sealed their report, the judge had threatened the grand jurors with contempt-of-court charges--and the possibility of jail time--if they breached their vows of secrecy. That threat is still in effect. For two years the jurors' attorney, Jonathan Turley, worked to gain his clients congressional immunity that would allow them to testify as to what had happened behind closed doors; that attempt was blocked by behind-the-scenes maneuvering before the 1994 elections. But by then, McKinley had hit on another route to the floors of Congress: as a congressman.

As he rode through the Fourth Congressional District, though, McKinley's candidacy spilled far beyond the confines of Rocky Flats and the Justice Department. He found himself taking positions on issues he'd never considered, found himself absorbing experiences he'd never expected. The $20,000 he put into the campaign (not including a $4,000 engine replacement in the old pickup he'd occasionally use instead of Marvin) was a small price to pay. "You always pay tuition for the lessons you learn," he says. "I learned what a great country it is and how great people are."

Including the rest of the grand jurors, who continued to stay strong--though silent. While McKinley was busy with his maverick run, the rest of the jurors filed a request on August 1 for the court to hold a closed hearing to consider the evidence from their investigation, to consider the obstacles the Justice Department had thrown in their way--in short, to finally let the grand jurors do what the Constitution requires them to do. Although attorney Turley has yet to hear back from Judge Richard Matsch, to whom the case has been assigned, Rockwell and the Justice Department have already weighed in.

Not surprisingly, Rockwell--which no longer runs Rocky Flats but has found that the legal entanglements have a half-life all their own--opposes any such hearing. Particularly, its response argues, when the jurors are motivated by nothing more compelling than their desire to deal with "book" and "movie" requests.

But unless Marvin is a talking mule, any movie about the jurors' legal limbo would be about as exciting as watching "pondcrete" dry. Or fail to dry, as was the case with the jinxed Rockwell waste-containment scheme that called for mixing hazardous materials into a concrete-like sludge.

Rather than an action picture, it is a picture of inaction. In fact, the U.S. Attorney's response to the grand jurors' request, filed last month with Matsch's court, makes much of that lack of activity. "The only continuing controversy is when [the grand jurors] make it one," the response notes. "Prior to the...August 1 press conference and petition, there was no continuing controversy and no public or media attention to the matter for at least two years."

Part of that was because Turley was pursuing other possibilities, including the quest for congressional immunity. Part of it, too, was because the press and public have moved on to other legal dramas--including the Oklahoma City bombing trial soon to play out in Matsch's courtroom. But much of it was because the jurors were still legally required to remain silent.

The grand jurors are not the only ones to recognize how hard it can be to make yourself heard on the topic of Rocky Flats. Paula Elofson-Gardine has served on the DOE-funded Citizens Environmental Sampling Committee studying Rocky Flats since 1992. The committee is in the process of compiling a final report for the Colorado Health Department--but the findings are not unanimous. For over a month now, Elofson-Gardine has been trying to determine how critics of the process can file their own minority report. Initially, the health department gave her group--citizens all, with other jobs--a deadline of five working days. Although that deadline was later extended until October 31, Elofson-Gardine is still waiting for information she says she needs before the minority report can be written. "People have to fight their asses off to be part of the process," she says. "The bureaucrats turn away most of the public."

In the years since the grand jurors took their frustration--but not the fine print behind it--public, much of the evidence they considered has come out in other forums, including a lawsuit filed against Rockwell by former Rocky Flats employee Jim Stone, who serves on the same committee as Elofson-Gardine. But the U.S. Attorney scoffs at the jurors' argument that this paves the way for full disclosure. He describes their behavior this way: "Leak secret information to the press; hold press conferences, contact politicians and continue to foment controversy; justify more disclosures based on the argument that disclosures have already occurred; and so on."

That's typical talk from the office of U.S. Attorney Henry Solano, who recently formalized a policy that his assistants may not speak without his prior permission and that he alone "will determine whether and when to announce or confirm investigations, indictments or arrests."

Of course, the Rocky Flats investigations are over, and the deal with Rockwell guaranteed that no indictments--much less arrests--would result.

"Enough," ends Solano's response to the grand jurors. "Grand jury 89-2 was discharged more than four and a half years ago...In 1992, the grand jurors elected the forum in which they wished to pursue these issues--that is, in the media and political arenas."

But justice is no more certain there than it is in the courthouse.


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