In late 1990, Common Cause Magazine published an explosive article examining the scandal-plagued history of the Northrop Corporation, one of the nation’s major defense contractors. It documented how Northrop’s former CEO, Thomas V. Jones, kept the company thriving despite scandals involving overseas payoffs, illegal Watergate contributions, and falsified tests on U.S. jet parts used in the Persian Gulf war.
At the time of the article, up to seven grand juries were reportedly investigating allegations that Northrop engaged in bribery, deliberate overcharging and falsifying test results. Northrop’s record led critics to depict it as one of the nation’s most lawless military contractors.
But Northrop was not alone nor necessarily atypical in its operation as the nation discovered in 1988 when the Justice Department started a massive investigation into possible fraud and bribery in securing defense contracts. The role of ex-Department of Defense workers who were paid by weapons contractors for the exclusive use of their knowledge was a major national story. It was called “Operation Ill Wind” and it was expected to blow the lid off one of the nation’s biggest scandals.
But it didn’t and we’ll probably never know why. After a lengthy investigation, investigative journalist Philip Dunn concluded that “Operation Ill Wind, the 1988 Justice Department investigation of possible fraud and bribery in securing defense contracts, will be hidden forever.”
With just one exception, the search warrants and affidavits that contain transcripts of wiretapped conversations of employees at McDonnell Douglas, one of the key players in the investigation, were sealed by court order. Despite the best efforts of the St. Louis Post Dispatch to obtain the affidavits, including an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the transcripts will remain sealed.
The Post’s attorney, Jim Shoemake, said “Search warrants always historically have been a public record. They should be open as a public check on what the government is doing.”
Edward H. Kohn, assistant city editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch at the time, explained why the paper made such a strong effort to secure the hidden documents: “I … believe that ‘Operation Ill Wind’ is of extraordinary scope and importance … and ultimately may equal or exceed the ‘Teapot Dome’ scandal or the publication of the ‘Pentagon Papers’ in its significance in this Nation’s history.”
SSU CENSORED RESEARCHER: DUSTIN HARP
SOURCE: COMMON CAUSE MAGAZINE, 2030 M Street, Washington, DC 20036, DATE: Nov/Dec 1990
TITLE: “The Devil and Mr. Jones” AUTHOR: John Hanrahan
SOURCE: THE ST. LOUIS JOURNALISM REVIEW 8380 Olive Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63132, DATE: March 1991
TITLE: ‘The documents were sealed and the public shut out” AUTHOR: Philip Dunn
COMMENTS: Author John Hanrahan, who investigated the Northrop scandal, charged that Northrop’s two decades of corruption — and the general topic of ongoing scandal over defense fraud — continued to get short shrift in major news media during the last year. “I know of no expose of Northrop or corrupt defense firms generally in the major news media — certainly not network TV or the news weeklies — in 1991,” Hanrahan said. ‘With press focus on the Gulf War last year — and how weapons made by defense firms were instrumental in the U.S. victory — the media seemed unwilling to dampen the nation’s perceived ‘feel-good’ mood brought on by the war.”
He said that the public would benefit from wider exposure of the DOD fraud issue because it would be in a better position to demand answers of the president and Congress as to why defense contracting fraud is so widespread; why major offenders get off with such light punishments (and continue to receive major contracts); and how the system can be improved to prevent the collusion that often exists between the government watchdogs and the contractors. Hanrahan noted that ‘The president and many members of Congress also benefit from the lack of exposure of defense contracting problems because the current system of ‘pork-barrel’ politics and campaign contributions from defense contractor PACs are important to reelection efforts.”
Investigative journalist Philip Dunn, who explored the Justice Department investigation of fraud at McDonnell Douglas, ruefully reported that while the issue didn’t receive sufficient media attention, “In this particular case, the issue is largely over; the St. Louis Post-Dispatch took on the federal government and the government won. It’s over.”
‘The issue of sealed documents in general hasn’t received enough attention,” he added. “We’re dealing with state and federal government documents, which are by definition (theoretically, at least) part of the public domain. If government’s purpose is to serve its citizens, to be ‘of the people, by the people and for the people,’ why shouldn’t every action that the government undertakes be open to public debate?”