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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rocky Flats Investigation

Air Date: Week of

Scott Schlegel reports from Denver on the controversy surrounding the US Justice Department's plea bargain with the defense contractor Rockwell International over environmental crimes at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons plant. Three Congressional committees are investigating the Justice Department's conduct in the Rocky Flats case and several other environmental prosecutions.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

For some time, Congress has been investigating allegations that high officials in the US Justice Department improperly quashed criminal cases against a number of allegedly serious polluters. Investigators for the House Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice recently said there are questions of political influence involving these prosecutions. One of the probes involves the massive pollution at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, outside of Denver. And in a highly unusual move, members of the grand jury that investigated the Rocky Flats case have broken their vow of silence, and asked for immunity to testify before Congress about their concerns. From Denver, Scott Schlegel has our story.

McKINLEY: Special Grand Jury 89-2 is a cross-section of the people of Colorado and of the United States of America. We were called as the citizenship to do our duty and that is what we have done . . . (fade under)

SCHLEGEL: For two and a half years, Wes McKinley was foreman of Special Grand Jury 89-2, the grand jury investigating the dumping of hazardous waste at Rocky Flats, where until three years ago, triggers for America's nuclear arsenal were built. The grand jury recommended that the Justice Department indict specific employees at Energy Department contractor Rockwell International for committing environmental crimes at Rocky Flats. But government prosecutors rejected their recommendation and instead struck a deal with Rockwell, in which the company agreed to pay an $18.5 million dollar fine and no company employees would be charged. The fine was a record for violations of Federal environmental laws, but it still amounted to less than Rockwell had earned in performance bonuses in the last three years of its operation of Rocky Flats. That arrangement provoked more than half the grand jurors to speak out, and at a press conference in mid-November, McKinley read a letter he and other grand jurors had sent to President-elect Clinton.

McKINLEY: Please direct the District Attorney to appoint a special Federal prosecutor or a suitable independent person to investigate whether any Federal criminal laws or rules may have been violated during the course of the special grand jury's investigation . . . (fade under)

SCHLEGEL: McKinley and the Rocky Flats grand jurors aren't alone in their call for an investigation of dealings deep inside the Justice Department, as well as the Department's handling of the Rocky Flats and other environmental prosecutions. Attorney and George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley represents the grand jurors. He's also conducted a study, for the House Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice, of the Justice Department's record in environmental prosecutions.

TURLEY: What is so damaging in the Rocky Flats case is it is a microcosm of sorts, of all of the problems identified by three separate Congressional committees. Those committees have identified a general pattern that has existed for twelve years at the Department of Justice. What Rocky Flats says is that it is not unique, it's one of as many as thirty cases that have been identified to date that are very similar, where individuals are escaping liability, at times where corporations are escaping entirely from liability.

SCHLEGEL: Turley says these cases, including the Rockwell case, raise the question of possible political influence in the prosecution of environmental crime by the Justice Department. What separates the Rockwell case from the others is that the grand jurors took the highly unusual step of going public with their dissent and in turn the Justice Department has threatened to prosecute the grand jurors for violating their oath of secrecy. Justice Department officials in Denver and Washington refused to comment on the investigation of the grand jurors. However, the department is defending its actions in the case against Rockwell. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Myles Flynt takes issue with twelve grand jurors' finding that Rockwell workers should have been indicted.

FLYNT: We have a standard within the Department of Justice that applies to all crimes, which is that you do not seek an indictment unless based on the evidence that the prosecutor has, the prosecutor believes that he will be able to obtain a conviction. We don't bring, seek an indictment simply to test something and to send a message.

SCHLEGEL: Some members of the grand jury would like to tell Congressional investigators why they disagree with the Justice Department. Three separate Congressional committees are investigating the Department's record on environmental crimes. Attorney Jonathan Turley says he'll ask Congress to give jurors immunity from prosecution for speaking out about the Rockwell case, although he doesn't know what will come of that request.

TURLEY: I don't deny that this would be a rather historic event, but this is a historic case. I mean the reason Congress has never faced this is because no Grand Jury has ever had to go public in the history of this country with criticisms.

SCHLEGEL: Under the government's agreement with Rockwell, company employees can no longer be prosecuted in the Rocky Flats case. But grand jurors say Congress and the American people need to know what really happened at Rocky Flats, so the same thing doesn't happen elsewhere. As one grand juror put it, what the public knows so far is only the tip of the iceberg. A spokesperson for incoming Attorney General Zoe Baird declined to comment on Justice Department prosecution of criminal environmental cases, pending her confirmation.

For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Schlegel in Denver.



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