Rocky Flats Grand-Jury Members Plan To Show Feds Tried to Obstruct Justice
BY V. DION HAYNES
DENVER -- In the summer of 1989, the U.S. attorney here impaneled a
special grand jury to investigate whether officials at Rocky Flats
Nuclear Weapons Plant willfully committed hundreds of environmental
violations, including dumping radioactive waste into drinking water.
After questioning 110 witnesses and reviewing
760 boxes of documents over nearly three years, jurors returned
indictments against eight plant and government officials. The U.S.
attorney, however, refused to sign the orders before disbanding the
Unlike a trial jury, a grand jury is forbidden
by federal law from disclosing anything that has gone on during its
investigation and deliberations. Breaking the silence could result in
But now, in an unprecedented move, 19 of the 23
members of that grand jury want to go public with charges that federal
prosecutors obstructed justice. The jurors are seeking permission to
tell a federal judge how they believe the U.S. attorney and U.S.
Department of Justice officials scuttled their investigation.
On Monday, a lawyer for the panel is expected
to file documents in federal court in Denver detailing official
misconduct in the jury room. U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch is
expected to decide within a month whether to grant jurors immunity to
testify at a court hearing.
Back to Basics: The case has fueled a
longstanding debate about the need for tighter controls for prosecutors
and rules re-establishing the historical independence of grand jury
''The account of the grand jurors is perhaps
the most unsettling record I have reviewed in my career. The evidence
of obstruction of justice and conspiracy [by prosecutors] is remarkably
strong,'' said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington
University, who is representing the jurors.
''The traditional independence of grand juries
has been whittled away over the last few decades by the Department of
Justice,'' he added. ''This case is the first comprehensive test of the
jury's independence and authority.''
To be sure, these former jurors -- including a
hairdresser, a bus driver, a letter carrier and a retired police
officer, ranging from their mid 20s to late 60s -- have little to gain
by revolting. Since launching their battle, they have been the subject
of relentless media attacks by prosecutors and a probe by the FBI.
The former jurors, many moved to act because of
their religious beliefs, said they are fighting because they took
seriously an oath to see the case through.
''I remember [Judge Finesilver's] charge to
us,'' said Jere Joiner, 60, a retired police officer. ''He said that we
represent the country, and that as an independent body it was our duty
to pursue all the issues that came before us or whatever we wanted to
look into.'' When prosecutors refused to sign the indictments, he said,
''we felt betrayed because we were not allowed to do the job we had
taken an oath to do.''
Outrage: The jurors issued indictments against
five employees of Rockwell International Corp. and three U.S.
Department of Energy officials, who operated Rocky Flats, but then-U.S.
Attorney Mike Norton refused to sign them. Outraged, the jurors issued
a blistering report against Norton and other Justice Department
officials. However, Chief Judge Sherman Finesilver, who has since
retired from the bench, promptly sealed the report.
Turley has carefully choreographed the former
grand jurors' statements about their service, prohibiting them from
furnishing specifics until their case is heard.
U.S. Atty. Henry Salano declined comment on the
case and Norton, in private practice, did not respond to a phone
message. But the National District Attorneys Association said the
prosecutors' actions seem justifiable.
While not commenting specifically on the Rocky
Flats case, Jim Polley, the association's director of governmental
affairs, said: ''A grand jury is a freewheeling body that doesn't have
to observe the standards of proof and evidence that a prosecutor would
in a real courtroom trial. Knowing what will and will not stand up in
court, a prosecutor is the best judge of whether it is best to go to
trial or to accept a plea bargain.''
For decades the Rocky Flats plant, 18 miles
northwest of Denver, played a crucial role in the country's arms race
with the Soviet Union. The plant was a major supplier of plutonium
triggers for nuclear arms in the Cold War.
Before there were strict federal standards,
plant officials allegedly stored radioactive-tainted gloves, uniforms
and other work materials in metal drums at the site, according to a
report issued by a subcommittee of the House Science, Space and
Technology Committee. But in the 1980s, the drums started
deteriorating, and plant officials scrambled for ways to dispose of the
In June 1989, the FBI raided the plant to
investigate allegations that Rockwell and the Department of Energy
dumped radioactive chemicals into public drinking water supplies and
secretly burned plutonium-laced materials in an incinerator that was
supposed to be shut down.
Court affidavits at the time asserted that
their motivation was an $8.6 million bonus that Rockwell received as
part of a program intended to reward contractors that dispose of their
hazardous wastes in an efficient manner. The special grand jury was
handed the case a few months later.
According to Turley, then-U.S. Attorney Norton
at first cooperated fully with jurors, giving them advice on how to
question witnesses and prepare documents.
But shortly before jurors were ready to issue
indictments, according to a complaint they filed in U.S. District Court
last August, Norton abruptly stopped assisting them. The complaint
asserts that Norton and other Justice Department officials interfered
with deliberations and refused to help jurors draft the indictment
The charges could constitute obstruction of justice.
Unbeknownst to jurors at the time, officials at
Rockwell and the Department of Energy had negotiated a settlement with
the Justice Department on the case. Rockwell paid an $18.5 million fine
in exchange for an agreement that prosecutors would charge the company
-- and not individuals -- with the environmental crimes.
At the time, Donald Beall, Rockwell's chairman
and chief executive officer said: ''We continue to believe that the
company operated the [Department of Energy] facility in a responsible
manner, but agreed to plead guilty and pay the fine to avoid a very
costly and lengthy trial.''
The grand jury system dates back to 5th century
England, conceived as an independent body of lay citizens with broad
investigatory powers to safeguard individuals from abuses of the crown.
But in the past two decades, many defense
lawyers have argued that grand juries have lost their autonomy,
becoming merely rubber stamps for prosecutors.
''The prosecutor controls evidence before a
grand jury like a spigot on a faucet,'' said Michael Ross, a New
York-based defense lawyer who chaired an American Bar Association
committee that studied the grand jury problem.
The bar association in recent years has called
for reforms -- including bringing defense lawyers into the proceedings,
and allowing juries to disclose obstruction of justice allegations.
Juror Connie Modecker, a 51-year-old homemaker, agreed.
''We feel in our hearts that this [alleged
prosecutoral abuse] will go on unless we do something. It has got to