A sting gone awry
When a trap didn't net big game, government targeted the little guys
November 23, 1998
Dale Brown was a poster boy for the American dream, an athletic former Eagle Scout whose start-up company near the Johnson Space Center outside Houston hustled contracts with NASA.
Brown worked seven days a week, 18 hours a day getting his company started in the late 1980s, trying to pair clients and their promising technologies with niches in the billion-dollar needs of the U.S. space program.
Like most small companies, Brown’s Terraspace Technologies Inc. sometimes struggled to make ends meet. A man who bragged about his Mississippi roots and his ability to make things happen promised to change that in 1992. John Clifford told Brown he had developed a product that NASA might use and he was prepared to spend big money to get it noticed.
It was called a miniature lithotripter, an ultrasound device whose technology might one day be used to improve the medical monitoring of astronauts in space.
Brown checked out Clifford and his companies with Dunn & Bradstreet, the Better Business Bureau and the banks that worked with him. All gave the Mississippi man a thumbs-up.
"I came to believe this guy was our savior, our knight in shining armor," Brown said.
Brown, though, was wrong.
John Clifford was actually Hal Francis, an agent for the FBI. His new device was phony, though legitimate companies had agreed to help the FBI by pretending to manufacture it. It was part of an FBI sting operation aimed at trapping Brown and several others who worked in the space program or on its periphery.
Francis and dozens of other federal agents and prosecutors had set their sights much higher: Key employees at NASA and a few of its contractors were suspected of giving and taking bribes, but the feds had failed to snare these high-placed managers.
Millions already had been spent on Operation Lightning Strike, including enormous bills for luxury hotel suites, gourmet meals, deep-sea fishing trips and booze-filled nights at Houston strip clubs. Federal agents needed something to show for their effort. So they went to work trying to lure minor space agency players into doing something illegal. Brown would be one of these consolation prizes.
It was a scenario similar to dozens of other failed government stings that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette uncovered in a two-year investigation of federal law enforcement officers’ misconduct.
Brown, now 38, eventually was charged with 21 counts of mail fraud and one count of bribery. After a jury deadlocked, all charges were dismissed, but the price of fighting for his innocence proved costly. Brown lost his business, his savings, his fiancée, his health and his belief in the American dream.
Not an isolated case
Brown was in good company.
The other 14 targets in Operation Lightning Strike were also college graduates. Most had families. Only one had previously been the target of a criminal investigation.
In 1994, two years into the government sting, federal prosecutors charged each with violating federal laws. Several of the cases started with the lithotripter. The government contended that Brown knew the device was phony, and thus every act he performed in trying to win a NASA contract for it constituted a crime, but that argument eventually self-destructed in court.
Brown produced a picture of the prototype he took while visiting a firm that would supposedly manufacture the lithotripter. Francis showed Brown the device to assure him it was real, and he didn’t know Brown had taken the picture.
Francis cajoled other sting targets into situations that would bring criminal charges, even though several said they couldn’t imagine that what they were doing might be construed as a crime.
All but two of the 15 suspects were coerced into quickly pleading guilty. Federal agents assured them that fighting the charges in court would result in long prison terms, huge fines and prolonged humiliation for their families.
The physical and psychological toll of "Operation Lightning Strike" was great. Seven small companies employing more than 100 people went bust. Three of those arrested had nervous breakdowns. One attempted suicide. Others experienced health problems that ranged from heart attacks to strokes.
"The government agents intentionally and methodically drove our companies and personal bank accounts to zero and drove our reputation to ruin," Brown said.
Court documents show the misconduct in this case originated with the government, not the people the government had charged, nor was Operation Lightning Strike an isolated case of a sting gone bad.
Time and again, the Post-Gazette found poorly executed government stings that followed a similar pattern:
Plea bargains had another advantage: Once a defendant pleaded guilty, federal agents weren’t required to reveal their evidence or their tactics.
That’s what almost happened in "Operation Lightning Strike." The 15 people charged were told they faced decades in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for their crimes.
They were promised that guilty pleas would bring leniency. Of the 13 who pleaded guilty, 11 got only probation. One man served five months in prison; another served two months.
Brown was the first to plead innocent and fight the charge.