The whistle-blower who triggered the probe into the fiery 1993 deaths of 74 Branch Davidians near Waco, Tex., pleaded guilty to a single felony charge yesterday in an agreement with prosecutors that provided a strange end to the $17 million investigation of the tragedy.
Former assistant U.S. attorney William W. Johnston, whose 1999 letter to then-Attorney General Janet Reno renewed the controversy over the FBI's handling of the assault on the Branch Davidian compound, became the only federal official involved in the matter to admit to a crime.
Johnston pleaded guilty in federal court in St. Louis to misprision of a felony -- failure to reveal knowledge of a felony. In return, special counsel John C. Danforth agreed to drop charges of obstructing justice and lying to investigators, and recommend probation instead of prison for Johnston.
Johnston helped prompt the Waco probe by alleging in a 1999 letter to Reno that the FBI had used pyrotechnic devices in the raid on the Branch Davidian compound, which went up in flames during an FBI raid in April 1993. Until then, Reno and FBI officials had insisted that nothing flammable was fired.
Danforth, who was appointed to investigate the allegations, concluded that the incendiary devices were used hours before the fire and did not play a role in setting the compound ablaze. A jury in a civil lawsuit filed by families of the dead also found in favor of the FBI.
Johnston admitted withholding notes from prosecutors and a grand jury indicating he had been told about the use of pyrotechnics six years before he notified Reno. Johnston said he didn't realize the importance of the information at the time and accused prosecutors of targeting him because he had embarrassed the Justice Department.
But Danforth, a former U.S. senator from Missouri, said yesterday that Johnston's guilty plea "vindicates the rule of law."
"The temptation of government employees to conceal mistakes is understandable," Danforth said. "It is easy to feel under siege, to feel it is better to lie than to face public exposure. But anything less than complete candor cannot be the response of those who represent the United States government."
The Waco standoff began in February 1993 when members of the Branch Davidian religious sect shot and killed four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Fifty-one days later, after a siege of the compound, an FBI raid ended with a fire that left sect leader David Koresh and 73 followers dead.
As a federal prosecutor, Johnston successfully prosecuted surviving members of the sect in connection with the ATF slayings.
In his plea agreement, Johnston acknowledged withholding notes indicating that the use of incendiary devices was discussed at a 1993 meeting he attended. "Johnston removed this page of notes from the notepad prior to turning the material over for delivery to Congress and the court," according to a news release from Danforth's office.
Johnston has said previously that he feared the notes would be used to smear him in the highly politicized Waco case. His attorney, Michael Kennedy of New York, has said Danforth prosecutors were trying "to destroy the messenger."
Johnston and Kennedy could not be reached for comment after the court hearing in St. Louis yesterday. Johnston's friends and supporters have asked President Bush to pardon him.
Danforth said yesterday that Johnston's plea completes his investigation, and that the special counsel's office in St. Louis will be closed.
ST. LOUIS, Mo. - A former federal prosecutor pleaded guilty Tuesday to concealing his notes about the government's use of incendiary tear gas during the deadly 1993 siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, authorities said.
William Johnston, who helped prosecute surviving members of the cult after the fiery end to the siege, pleaded guilty to a single count of misprision of a felony in return for having other charges dismissed, special prosecutor John Danforth said.
Danforth, a former Republican senator from Missouri, said he recommended that Johnston, 41, receive probation and serve no jail time, though the crime could be punished by up to four years in prison.
Last year, Danforth said in his report on the government's handling of the siege that the incendiary tear gas canisters bounced harmlessly away from the compound.
He said the fire that engulfed the wooden structure and killed Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and 80 of his followers was set by the Davidians themselves as government tanks began breaking through the walls.
Still, the use of pyrotechnic military tear gas by the government was concealed from then-Attorney General Janet Reno when she testified to Congress about the siege.
EVIDENCE WITHHELD FROM RENO
Johnston later wrote a letter to Reno telling her that the evidence about the tear gas had been withheld from her, triggering renewed uproar over the case. Johnston was removed from the Waco prosecutions and resigned early last year.
As part of his plea agreement, Johnston admitted ripping a key page about the tear gas from his notes before turning them over to attorneys for a group of Davidians who were suing the government. The notes related to a 1993 discussion about tear gas use. The suit by the Davidians was later dismissed.
Johnston only conceded he removed the page of notes after analysis of the following page revealed indentations detailing the information.
Johnston also admitted to lying to Danforth's investigators and to a grand jury investigating the case.
Danforth said in a statement that Johnston's behavior was unacceptable.
"The temptation of government employees to conceal mistakes is understandable. Our political culture tolerates no missteps. Errors in judgment can ruin careers, destroy reputations and subject government employees to public disgrace," he said.
"But anything less than complete candor cannot be the response of those who represent the U.S. government," he said.
Danforth said that with Johnston's plea, his work as a special counsel was done.
WACO Former U.S. Attorney Bill Johnston will plead guilty Tuesday as part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors who accused him of obstructing the investigation into the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, a newspaper reported.
Mr. Johnston plans to plead guilty to misprision of felony, which means someone knows of a crime committed by someone else but doesn't report it. In exchange, prosecutors with special counsel John Danforth's office will recommend a probated sentence, Mr. Johnston told the Waco Tribune-Herald in a report for Tuesday editions.
"I think it is significant that they are agreeing to dismiss the entire indictment against me, and I am agreeing that I should have informed them that I didn't turn over my notes, which I have already publicly stated," Mr. Johnston said.
Mr. Johnston was indicted by a grand jury in St. Louis on Nov. 8, just before Mr. Danforth released his final report absolving the government of wrongdoing.
Mr. Johnston pleaded not guilty to two counts of obstructing justice and three counts of lying to federal investigators and a grand jury. His trial was scheduled for April 2.
Mr. Johnston has said that Mr. Danforth improperly singled him out for prosecution.
"One reason I am agreeing to plead to this is that I am out of money, and I have to try to salvage some way to make a living because I am so far in debt from all of this," Mr. Johnston said. "This offense gave me that chance. Were I convicted on any one count in the indictment, the State Bar of Texas would have to look at suspension or disbarment. That does not apply to this offense, but I cannot speak for the State Bar as to what they might do."
If U.S. District Judge Charles Shaw accepts the plea agreement, Mr. Johnston said, he could be on probation for up to three years.
Mr. Johnston has admitted he withheld several pages of notes that dealt with the FBI's use of pyrotechnic tear-gas canisters on April 19, 1993, the final day of a 51-day standoff that ended with the death of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and about 80 followers.
But Mr. Johnston said in prepared a statement after the November indictment that he was being prosecuted because he was a "whistle-blower."
"My actions were foolish, regrettable and wrong, but they were not criminal," Mr. Johnston said then. "I can't confess to concealing the pyrotechnics when I was the government employee most responsible for disclosing them. And I can't take full blame when there is so much blame to be spread around."
A pretrial hearing in the obstruction of justice case against former federal prosecutor Bill Johnston has been rescheduled for the second time as the parties continue to iron out a plea agreement, sources said.
Johnston, a former U.S. attorney from Waco, had been set for a pretrial hearing on Wednesday in U.S. Magistrate Mary Ann Medler's court in St. Louis. That hearing has been canceled, and the next court setting in Johnston's case is Feb. 6 before U.S. District Judge Charles Shaw, said Jan Diltz, a spokeswoman for John Danforth's Office of Special Counsel.
Johnston was the lone person indicted in Danforth's 14-month, $17 million investigation into government actions on the final day of the 1993 standoff at David Koresh's compound known as Mount Carmel.
Danforth's special grand jury, meeting in St. Louis, indicted Johnston in November on two counts of obstructing Danforth's investigation and on three counts of lying to Danforth's investigators and to the grand jury.
A trial date has been set for April 2 in St. Louis.
Johnston and Diltz declined comment Monday on reports that the pretrial hearings set for Jan. 16 and reset for Wednesday were canceled because of ongoing plea negotiations that reportedly will result in a felony conviction for Johnston but no prison time.
"There is just nothing I can really say at this point," Diltz said.
Johnston's attorney, Michael Kennedy, did not return phone messages to his office on Monday.
Kennedy has filed motions asking that the charges against Johnston be dismissed for a number of reasons, including allegations that the special counsel is holding Johnston to a higher standard of conduct than others who have lied or were not cooperative with the investigation.
Johnston, who helped prosecute 11 Branch Davidians on murder charges in 1994, has acknowledged that he "temporarily misled" the grand jury about his knowledge of the FBI's use of tear-gas cannisters that were capable of starting a fire.
Johnston also is charged with withholding his handwritten notes that indicated that he had discussed the use of the pyrotechnic devices before the Branch Davidian criminal trial. Johnston falsely testified before the grand jury that he had turned over all his notes involving the Branch Davidian case, the indictment against him alleges.
Before that, he also had been ordered by a federal judge in Waco and a congressional subpoena to turn over all of his materials in the case.
The pretrial hearings had been set in Medler's magistrate court, and she was to have considered Johnston's motions and made a recommendation to Shaw, who was to have made final rulings in the case. The Feb. 6 hearing, however, is set in Shaw's federal district court, another possible indication that the parties are close to finalizing a plea bargain, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In order to supplement the above news, we recomment the book by David Thibodeau "A Place Called Waco: A Survivor's Story" (see related article). Thibodeau, one of only nine Branch Davidian survivors of the attack, tells the story of the Branch Davidians and their dealings with federal agents. In light of subsequent government admissions, including a partial recantation in 1999 of previous denials that the tea gas used in the assault could have been incendiary, Thibodeau's detailed account of the storming of the compound and the fire that followed is still more important.
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