Sources: DENVER WESTWORD, Date: 9/30/92+, Title: “Rocky Flats Grand Jury” series, Authors: Bryan Abas and Patricia Calhoun; HARPER’S MAGAZINE, Date: 12/92, Title: “Readings: The Grand Jury Report”; THE DENVER POST, Date: 1/5/93, Title: “Panel: Flats probe thwarted” Authors: Kelly Richmond and Robert Kowalski; THE WASHINGTON POST, Date: 8/11/93, Title: “Free the Rocky Flats 23,” Author: Jonathan Turley
SSU Censored Researcher: Kristen Rutledge
SYNOPSIS: “For forty years, federal, Coloradan, and local regulators and elected officials have been unable to make the Department of Energy (DOE) and the plant’s corporate operators obey the law. Indeed the plant has been, and continues to be, operated by government and corporate employees who have placed themselves above the law and who have hidden their illegal conduct behind the cloak of ,national security’.”-from sealed report of the special grand jury impaneled in Denver in August 1989, and submitted to the court in March 1992.
But all that seemed to end on March 26, 1992, when a U.S. prosecuting attorney announced that Rockwell International, the company that operated the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant in Colorado for 14 years, had pled guilty to ten charges of violating federal hazardous waste disposal and clean water laws. The plea bargain called for an $18.5 million fine which Rockwell agreed to pay. All that remained was for the court to approve the settlement.
That might have been the end of this environmental crime if it had not been for a grand jury of 23 citizens who refused to participate in a cover-up and an aggressive alternative weekly newspaper, the Denver-based Westword, which believed in the public’s right to know.
While the prosecuting attorney announced that Rockwell’s fine would be the largest ever collected by the federal government for violations of hazardous waste disposal laws, critics pointed out that the $18.5 million fine was less than the $22.6 million in bonus fees awarded Rockwell from 1987 to 1989.
On September 30, 1992, Westword started publishing a remarkable series of articles by Bryan Abas and Westword editor Patricia Calhoun about the jury investigation-including incriminating court documents and charges of an official cover-up.
On November 20, 1992, the grand jurors went public charging that the Justice Department prevented them from fulfilling their oaths to pursue wrongdoing regardless of the consequences. In turn, the Justice Department threatened them with criminal charges for revealing information on the case.
Jonathan Turley, an environmental law professor at George Washington University, who also is representing the jurors on a pro bono basis, cited the “Rocky Flats 23” for being the first grand jury in history to risk possible personal incarceration for revealing information critical of the Justice Department.
By August 1993, the justice Department’s environmental crimes section was being investigated by the department itself and by a House oversight subcommittee to determine whether the Bush administration allowed corporations and corporate officials to escape punishment for serious environmental crimes.
Turley reported, “House investigators, while facing what one of them called `extreme’ resistance from the department, uncovered evidence of high-level intervention by Justice Department officials to reduce both charges and fines against Rockwell.” Oversight subcommittee chairman Howard Wolpe and other lawmakers have asked President Bill Clinton to pardon the grand jurors.
COMMENTS: The Rocky Flats case is a classic example of how a small but aggressive weekly paper can bring an issue to national attention through its own persistent coverage. While the Rocky Flats Grand Jury story started in mid-1989, it wasn’t until late 1992 that it started to attract media attention, as reported by Amy Asch, promotion manager for Harper’s Magazine.
The Denver Westword started covering the story on September 30, 1992, when it published the first in a series of articles about the Rocky Flats Grand Jury by reporter Bryan Abas and Westword editor Patricia Calhoun. Abas had obtained a draft copy of the grand jury’s report, which had been sealed by, the judge, and, according to Asch, “Harper’s Magazine brought the story to the national press, by printing the first lengthy extract from the document in the December 1992 issue. This resulted in news stories being written by The New York Times, the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Rocky Mountain News, Sacramento Bee, and other newspapers.”
Westword editor Calhoun pointed out that if Westword had “not broken the original story-and like the grand jurors, risked contempt of court in doing so-it’s unlikely that the subject would have ever seen the light of day.”
Calhoun said the general public would benefit from even wider exposure of this story since “Rocky Flats is only one instance of the justice department dragging its heels on the issue of environmental crimes at federal facilities. A Congressional subcommittee is currently considering thirty other cases in which Justice may have willfully failed to prosecute such crimes. Certainly, wider exposure of the Rocky Flats story would illuminate these other cases.”
Calhoun noted that the primary beneficiaries of the lack of coverage given the issue include the Justice Department, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and Rockwell International.
Harper’s Asch notes that the magazine “believes strongly in providing the facts and letting readers make their own decisions. The Rocky Flats cover-up … is not only an environmental issue, but also concerns the negligent behavior of the DOE, and what seems to be an attempt by the Justice Department to cover up the DOE’s cover-up of its environmental abuses.”
Ironically, more than four years after this story started, it still has not received the coverage necessary to prod the administration to resolve it. On November 1, 1993, Dick Thomas, associate editor of The Oregonian, in Portland, reported that the Rocky Flats grand jurors still haven’t received justice and “remain unanimous in their commitment to disclosing what they know about the crimes committed at Rocky Flats.”