‘There needs to be accountability’

Rocky Flats jury foreman addresses CU students

Colorado Daily Staff Writer
October 29th, 1999

Wes McKinley knows all about the crimes against society allegedly perpetrated at Rocky Flats. He knows the perpetrators will probably never be brought to justice. And as much as he'd like to, he can't tell a soul what he knows.

Yet McKinley says he doesn't lose any sleep at night.

A rancher from southeastern Colorado, McKinley served as foreman of the grand jury that investigated allegations of environmental crimes at Rocky Flats, the former nuclear weapons plant south of Boulder, from 1989 to 1992.

While the grand jury reportedly wanted to indict officials of the plant's contractor at the time, Rockwell International, as well as federal government officials, a U.S. attorney in the end refused to follow jury recommendations and instead struck a plea agreement with Rockwell.

The judge in the case then sealed the grand jury's report, and grand jurors were told that if they divulged information from their secret proceedings, they would face charges of criminal contempt of court.

To this day, and likely for the rest of his life, McKinley is barred from telling the truth about what really happened. Still, he says it wasn't all for nothing.

"What would bother me is if I couldn't do anything," McKinley said during a visit to CU-Boulder Thursday. Every now and then, he said, he is invited to talk to high school and college classes and private organizations. On Thursday, he addressed a class taught by Adrienne Anderson, a CU environmental ethics instructor, who called McKinley a "hero."

He still has to be careful what he says. To illustrate the point, Anderson teasingly asked him, "just for fun," detailed questions about testimony given to the grand jury.

Seemingly unfazed, McKinley quoted grand jury rules and explained that he could face 25 years in prison if he answered her questions.

So instead, McKinley talks about what he says was the chief lesson learned from the Rocky Flats grand jury proceedings:

"There is no accountability in government," McKinley asserted.

Painting a complex picture of government power structures and political relationships, McKinley suggested that the grand jury's recommendations were suppressed because of political interests and because they might lead to the imprisonment of government officials. He also quoted other instances in which he said grand juries have been barred from indicting government organizations or individuals.

"We see a pattern in America, really," McKinley said. "Don't step too close to government officials."

While grand juries -- composed of ordinary citizens -- are supposed to have great independent powers, the government still manages through various means to render them ineffective when doing so serves its purposes, he said.

The Rocky Flats grand jurors swore to "do what we felt was right, and not take directions from the court," McKinley said. But in the end, the courts nonetheless prevented grand jurors from following their consciences, he said.

"What is justice in America?" McKinley asked. "The government circumvents the law system."

Little if anything has changed as a result of the grand jury proceedings, McKinley said. Although Rocky Flats has closed, the government is still producing plutonium pits for nuclear weapons at Los Alamos, N.M. And even though Rockwell pleaded guilty to environmental crimes and agreed to pay $18 million in fines (a "slap on the wrist," McKinley said), no individuals ever went to jail, and Rockwell is still in business.

But at least, by telling people about his experiences, McKinley said he hopes he can get them to think about how the federal government works -- or in many instances doesn't.

"There needs to be accountability," he said.