William Johnston, a former federal prosecutor who later strongly criticized the federal government's role in the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, may be a target for prosecution by special counsel John Danforth.
Michael Kennedy, a lawyer for Johnston, said Thursday that Danforth had threatened to indict Johnston on charges of obstructing justice, perjury and giving false statements.
Danforth's Office of Special Counsel would not comment on Kennedy's statement. While Danforth has absolved Attorney General Janet Reno and the FBI of wrongdoing in the deadly 1993 siege on the Branch Davidians, he continues to investigate whether Justice Department lawyers withheld evidence.
Kennedy said he believes Johnston was "unfairly targeted for his frequent criticism of the U.S. government and for blowing the whistle on the government's efforts to mislead the public about the government's use of pyrotechnic devices against the Branch Davidians."
Susan Kelly, Johnston's law partner, said the potential charge "has to do with Bill not providing some of his personal notes at some point in time, and that makes them mad. All of this happened after he blew the whistle. It looks to me as major retaliation."
Johnston, 41, is the former U.S. attorney in Waco. He helped prosecute Davidians who were involved in the confrontation that led to the deaths of four federal agents and six Davidians. He was also partly responsible for Reno appointing Danforth to investigate what happened.
It was Johnston who allowed a documentary filmmaker to look at Waco evidence. The filmmaker discovered spent pyrotechnic tear gas casings. That prompted Reno to confirm what the government had denied for years - that agents fired at least two tear gas rounds that could start fires. After that, Reno appointed Danforth as a special counsel.
Johnston also wrote to Reno in August 1999, saying government lawyers had known for years about the use of pyrotechnic tear gas rounds. He resigned in February, saying high-ranking Justice Department officials had failed to inform Reno about the tear gas.
Both Danforth and an advisory jury in a civil trial have concluded that the Davidians themselves - and not the tear gas rounds - started the fire that helped kill about 80 members of the religious sect.
Danforth is investigating whether two federal prosecutors - Ray and LeRoy Jahn - deceived Congress about the use of the tear gas and whether they also hid that fact from the Davidians' defense lawyers in a 1994 criminal trial. Johnston was a member of the prosecution team that included the Jahns, a husband and wife team of assistant U.S. attorneys based in San Antonio, Texas.
Courthouse sources in Waco said District Judge Walter Smith Jr., a friend of Johnston's, threw Danforth's investigators out of the federal courthouse there last week because of the way Johnston was being treated.
The former prosecutor who warned last year of a possible cover-up of federal actions in the Branch Davidian siege has been told he is being targeted for prosecution by Waco special counsel John C. Danforth.
Friends and associates of former Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Johnston say he has been told by the special counsel's office that he will soon be indicted on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and lying to investigators.
They say he has been told that the charges stem from his withholding of several pages of pretrial notes from the 1994 federal prosecution of surviving Branch Davidians. They say that Mr. Johnston's action was a mistake driven by his concern that his notes would be misused by others in the U.S. attorney's office who were angry about his public criticism of the Justice Department's handling of the Waco tragedy.
Mr. Johnston declined to comment Thursday, referring questions to his criminal defense attorney, Michael Kennedy of New York City. Mr. Kennedy released a statement Thursday confirming that the Waco special counsel has threatened Mr. Johnston with federal prosecution. .
"This law office and Mr. Johnston believe that he was unfairly targeted for his frequent criticism of the U.S. government and for blowing the whistle on the government's efforts to mislead the public about the government's use of pyrotechnic devices against the Branch Davidians," said Mr. Kennedy, whose past clients include New York socialite Ivana Trump and Whitewater defendant Susan McDougal.Officials with Mr. Danforth's St. Louis office declined to comment Thursday.
Mr. Johnston's friends and former law enforcement associates are rallying support for the embattled former prosecutor, starting a legal defense fund for an aggressive court battle.
"I'm spending most of my time today working on calling on some people with deep pockets," said David Smith, a former Waco city manager. "We're ready to fight 'em. I think that they're going to find that this community is 100 percent behind Bill."
Several Waco officials said U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. was so dismayed by the special counsel's treatment of Mr. Johnston that he recently told Mr. Danforth's investigators that they faced arrest if they carried firearms into his courthouse and would be allowed access to the building only like that given to the public.
Judge Smith, who has presided over all of the litigation arising from the 1993 Davidian standoff, declined to be interviewed Thursday.
But other officials said two investigators for Mr. Danforth who had previously used offices in the courthouse have not returned since the judge told them he was ending his court's cooperation with Mr. Danforth's inquiry and told them he considered their actions against Mr. Johnston a witch hunt.
"People here who know the details are just livid," said Carey Hobbs, a local plant owner also raising defense funds. "You meet somebody and talk to them about it, and tears run down the cheeks of grown men."
Mr. Johnston was among five assistant U.S attorneys and Justice Department lawyers who prosecuted survivors of the 51-day siege, which began with a gunfight in which four federal agents died. The shootout began when federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents tried to search the sect's compound and arrest leader David Koresh on firearms charges.
The siege ended on April 19, 1993, with a fire that burned the compound with Mr. Koresh and more than 80 followers inside.
The case drew new attention last summer after a former FBI official told The Dallas Morning News that bureau agents had used tear gas grenades capable of sparking fires on the last day of the siege.
Justice Department officials initially ridiculed the admission but later acknowledged that pyrotechnic devices were used in the FBI's final tank and tear gas assault.
Mr. Johnston wrote Attorney General Janet Reno exactly one year ago Wednesday to warn that some of her Justice Department subordinates may have withheld evidence from about the FBI's use of pyrotechnic grenades.
Ms. Reno had banned use of anything that might spark a fire in the final assault.
Ms. Reno asked Mr. Danforth last September to review government actions in the standoff and determine why officials had so long denied that the FBI had used anything capable of sparking fires.
Mr. Johnston went public shortly after writing Ms. Reno, saying last August that he spoke out after being shown 6-year-old documents detailing the FBI's use of military pyrotechnic gas.
The documents suggested that Mr. Johnston might have attended a fall 1993 meeting where FBI agents told prosecutors about using several military gas rounds.
Mr. Johnston did not recall the meeting, and friends say Mr. Danforth's investigators recently told him that they do not believe he was there.Mr. Johnston said last August that he believed the documents were sent to him by other prosecutors to stop his efforts to help the Texas Rangers identify shell casings from the standoff that some government critics alleged were pyrotechnic government munitions.
But some friends said they immediately feared Mr. Johnston was making himself a target.
"I said, Bill, this [letter to Ms. Reno] looks like a suicide note to me. I was surprised that he was able to hang on as long as he did because they do not take kindly to that kind of criticism. The truth is not what they're after," said David Byrnes, a retired Texas Ranger captain who helped lead the Davidian criminal investigation.
"At this point, I don't think anybody inside the federal government except for Bill Johnston has any honor at all," Mr. Byrnes said. "I think he is a victim and a scapegoat in this, and Danforth is falling right in with those people in Justice who want to exact revenge on him."
Mr. Johnston resigned from the U.S. attorney's office in February.
But friends said he continued to be questioned, and Mr. Danforth's investigators grilled him twice before a federal grand jury. In a particularly grueling, three-day interrogation in St. Louis in July, friends said, Mr. Johnston was threatened after telling a senior investigator that an article on his role in the Davidian case was being prepared for Texas Monthly.
In September, the article, titled "Law's good soldier," appeared in the magazine's annual issue on the year's 20 most influential Texans.
"They informed him that if he exercised his right to free expression by appearing in Texas Monthly, that would guarantee an indictment," said Rod Goble, a Waco attorney and longtime friend of Mr. Johnston. That came within less than a week after Mr. Danforth unveiled his preliminary report on the case, telling reporters that he found no major government wrongdoing and would not prosecute an FBI lawyer whom he alleged had repeatedly lied..
Mr. Goble said Mr. Johnston recounted being told he could only avoid prosecution if he pleaded guilty to a felony and acknowledged that other prosecutors had conspired to cover up the FBI's use of pyrotechnic grenades.
"Bill wouldn't lie for them," Mr. Goble added.
He and other associates said Mr. Johnston was questioned intensively about pages he took from a notebook before turning it over to his superiors. He was ordered to surrender his Davidian records after Judge Smith ordered all government agencies to send his court everything relating to the incident.
Mr. Goble and other associates said Mr. Johnston told Mr. Danforth's staff that he removed several pages before sending the notes to superiors in San Antonio.
One page had a reference to incendiary objects, friends said. Mr. Johnston did not recall why he wrote the phrase but knew that colleagues unhappy with his role as a whistle-blower were being allowed to review his files. Friends said he feared those colleagues might use such notes to allege he had failed to disclose the use of pyrotechnics.
Friends said Mr. Johnston told investigators that he did not immediately disclose his failure to turn over the notes because he did not trust them. They said Mr. Johnston recounted being accused of wrongdoing in his first interview with Mr. Danforth's investigators, and even being told that he was suspected of concealing FBI agents' admissions of firing guns at the Davidian compound.
The FBI has long denied their agents fired any shots, and Mr. Danforth's report released in July concluded that no federal agents fired guns at the end of the standoff.
"I've known Bill Johnston for almost 20 years and have represented dozens and dozens of individuals in cases in which he was the prosecuting attorney," Mr. Goble said. " His integrity is beyond question."
"I can't figure out how Senator Danforth could spend millions of dollars, whitewash federal authorities in high places and then put everything Bill did for several years under a microscope and try to pull things out of context and go after him," he said. "It makes you wonder what they're doing and what they've been smoking."
Michael Caddell, a Houston lawyer who led a recent wrongful-death lawsuit against the government filed by surviving Davidians and their families, said the threatened prosecution of Mr. Johnston raises serious questions about the integrity of Mr. Danforth's Waco inquiry.
"Why single out Bill Johnston? He's not even in the government anymore. He basically got recused from the case, got forced out of the Justice Department, became a pariah," he said. "There are going to be a lot of people shaking their heads.
"It says a lot about the misdirection of the Danforth investigation. It ignores wrongdoing by government officials and whitewashes what even Danforth admits was less than a truthful presentation of what happened at Mount Carmel, and he seeks to go after the one person who tried to get the truth out."
Two of San Antonio's most respected and feared prosecutors have hired one of the city's best known and most accomplished criminal defense lawyers to deal with an investigation into whether they deceived Congress.
Gerald H. Goldstein is representing the husband-and-wife team of Assistant U.S. Attorneys Ray and LeRoy Jahn - career prosecutors who are subjects of a probe into possible government wrongdoing related to the 1993 Waco standoff with Branch Davidians.
While making allies out of former courtroom adversaries, the match between the federal enforcers and the eloquent, self-described ex-hippie has symmetry beyond their local status as premier lawyers.
All three attended law school in Austin together, and all attended the 1995 congressional hearing in which the Jahns have been accused of misleading lawmakers.
The investigation led by special counsel John C. Danforth, however, represents an unexpected twist in the Jahns' careers.
Their polished résumés include targeting public corruption, convicting federal Judge John Wood's assassin and tenaciously grilling President Clinton during the trial of his former Whitewater business partners.
The Waco probe has thrust the veteran prosecutors into the unusual position of being investigated even as they investigate others. Most recently, their signatures appeared on grand jury subpoenas issued to the office of state Sen. Frank Madla, D-San Antonio, and other state agencies.
The investigation focusing partly on the Jahns stems from their 1994 prosecution of 11 Branch Davidians after the 51-day siege ended with about 80 members of the religious sect dying as fire consumed their bunker. Some died from gunshot wounds.
Although Danforth concluded in July that sect members kindled the blaze that killed them, he said several government agents and lawyers withheld information that, when it surfaced, spurred cover-up allegations and conspiracy theories.
The former U.S. senator noted that the Jahns did not reveal the use of a potentially incendiary tear-gas canister on the morning of the siege during the 1994 trial or at a 1995 congressional hearing, in which the pair appeared as Justice Department experts on the Waco case.
Their statement to lawmakers read in part, "the FBI did not fire a shot other than the nonlethal (and non-incendiary) ferret rounds which carried the CS (tear) gas."
When questioned by Danforth's investigators, Ray Jahn "admitted" he knew about the pyrotechnic round in 1993 and claimed that he was merely "negligent" in not revealing them, the special counsel's preliminary report stated.
The report added that investigators continue to examine whether the Jahns, or other prosecutors who worked alongside them, intentionally concealed the canister's use.
Danforth's spokeswoman refused to comment on the investigation's progress.
Goldstein likewise declined to discuss whether the Jahns had been summoned before a grand jury Danforth has convened in St. Louis.
But he characterized them as ethical lawyers who are being sacrificed to the public's need to blame someone for controversy surrounding the Waco siege.
"The word scapegoat comes to mind," he said, adding, "I think there will be other scapegoats."
Other prosecutors, past and present, who worked on the 1994 trial include former Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Johnston of Waco. He could not be reached for comment.
Another trial participant, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Phinizy of Austin, said he had been interviewed but not subpoenaed by Danforth's investigators.
San Antonio lawyer John Convery, a former prosecutor who helped select the jury but had no part in trial preparation, said investigators once contacted him but canceled their interview.
HOUSTON (AP) - The former prosecutor who warned Attorney General Janet Reno of a possible cover-up within her own department has been told he is being targeted for prosecution by Waco Special Counsel John C. Danforth.
Former assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Johnston's attorney, Michael Kennedy, said his client has been threatened with indictments on charges including obstruction of justice and perjury.
``This law office and Mr. Johnston believe that he was unfairly targeted for his frequent criticism of the U.S. government and for blowing the whistle on the government's efforts to mislead the public about the government's use of pyrotechnic devices against the Branch Davidians,'' Kennedy said in a statement Thursday.
The investigation of Johnston reportedly stems from pretrial notes he made in 1993 that show he may have been present at a meeting where ``military rounds'' were discussed.
Johnston didn't pass the notes to Danforth's office because he was concerned they would be misconstrued and used to falsely implicate him, two government sources told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity. Kennedy said Johnston wasn't at the meeting.
Jan Diltz, a spokeswoman for Danforth's office in St. Louis, declined to comment on the reports Thursday.
Johnston, who resigned from the U.S. Attorney's office in Waco in January, was involved in the Branch Davidian case from the beginning.
In 1993, he helped draft the search warrant that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attempted to execute on Feb. 28 of that year in a botched raid that turned into a gunbattle. Four federal agents and six Davidians were killed. The following year, Johnston helped to convict nine Davidians in the deaths of the agents.
Johnston has been at odds with Justice officials since he paved the way for filmmaker Michael McNulty to review evidence sifted from the ruins of the burned Branch Davidian compound. The compound caught fire during a siege April 19, 1993, that ended a 51-day standoff between the sect and federal agents. Sect leader David Koresh and some 80 followers died inside.
McNulty's discovery of a spent pyrotechnic tear gas canister forced the FBI last year to recant its long-standing denials that potentially incendiary devices had been fired at the compound.
The about-face triggered investigations by Congress and the special counsel appointment by Reno. Danforth was asked to review government actions in the standoff and to determine if there was a government cover-up.
Johnston wrote Reno a letter on Aug. 30, 1999, stating that government lawyers had known about the potentially incendiary devices for years. Ten days later, he was pulled from the case. In 1993, Johnston also bypassed his supervisor and wrote to Reno about the FBI's handling of the crime scene at the burned compound.
Johnston said in a written statement that Danforth's prosecutors have tried to ``coerce'' him into pleading guilty over the past year, The Washington Post reported in Friday editions.
``Mr. Danforth's prosecutors and investigators have lied to me, made me false promises, cursed me with profanity and threatened to throw me in jail,'' Johnston said in the statement. He said one prosecutor told his law partner his life was over. ``Not my career, mind you; my life.''
Danforth has twice brought Johnston before a federal grand jury for questioning since his resignation in January.
Last month, Danforth absolved the government of all blame in the blaze. A week before, an advisory jury hearing a $675 million wrongful-death suit brought by surviving cult members and the victims' families came to the same conclusion.
In another matter, U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith on Tuesday canceled a Sept. 18 hearing on whether federal agents shot at Branch Davidians on the final day of the standoff.
The hearing was canceled because plaintiffs would not pay travel costs for David Oxlee, an expert from England. Oxlee worked with British firm Vector Data Systems Ltd., which examined infrared images taken by an aerial FBI surveillance camera on the final day of a 51-day standoff between federal agents and the Davidians.
Smith is expected to issue a final ruling on the issues presented to the jury as well as the gunfire issue.
Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates
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