Former crusading federal prosecutor seeks Bush pardon over Branch Davidian controversy

Waco Tribune-Herald/October 4, 2008

As the nation prepares to elect a new leader, Bill Johnston hopes that George W. Bush will look favorably on his request for a presidential pardon before Bush ends his eight-year White House tenure in mid-January.

Johnston, 49, a former crusading federal prosecutor who ran afoul of former U.S. Sen. John Danforth’s special investigation into the 1993 Branch Davidian siege, says he hopes to wipe the felony conviction from his record and put the debacle behind him with a pardon.

"I felt that what happened was unfair. But I dealt with it at that time and the system provides for relief from that, and that is why I am seeking a pardon," said Johnston, a Waco attorney and, for a dozen years, a federal prosecutor. "I have lived with this thing every day of my life for the last seven years, and I’d love to more fully put it behind me. I don’t know that I can do that without having this looked at. Then I can say that I have done all I could do."

A federal judge in St. Louis placed Johnston on unsupervised probation for two years in June 2001. He admitted he failed to turn over his personal notes that Danforth’s investigators said revealed Johnston knew at least by 1994 that the FBI used tear-gas devices capable of sparking a fire on the final day of the government standoff with David Koresh and his apocalyptic followers.

Revelations in 1999 that those devices were used - long denied by the FBI - led then-Attorney General Janet Reno to tap Danforth to investigate government actions during the siege at Mount Carmel.

Seventy-six Branch Davidians died in a tank and tear-gas assault on their compound mounted by the FBI on April 19, 1993. Authorities later concluded that the fire that consumed the compound east of Waco was started by the Davidians themselves.

Johnston, the only person prosecuted as a result of Danforth’s $17 million investigation, admitted he removed pages from his notes before certifying to the Justice Department that he had turned over all materials he had relating to the controversial Branch Davidian case.

Congress and a federal judge in Waco also had ordered Johnston to turn over all related materials. When Danforth’s office asked him about the notes, he lied to Danforth’s assistants and to a grand jury in St. Louis, special prosecutors said. He also failed a lie-detector test, Danforth’s assistants have said.

Michael Kennedy, Johnston’s lawyer at the time, said Johnston didn’t remember his notes and only discovered them in 1999, when the pyrotechnic rounds became an issue. Johnston panicked, Kennedy said at the time, because he feared his supervisors in the Justice Department were out to get him by making him a scapegoat after the rounds were discovered.

Johnston was originally charged in a five-count indictment that included obstruction of justice. After a plea bargain, he pleaded guilty in February 2001 to one charge of misprision of a felony, essentially failing to report a crime.

Erik Ablin, a Department of Justice spokesman, confirmed Johnston’s application for a pardon is on file in Washington. In most cases, a committee conducts a background investigation, the case is reviewed and a recommendation is forwarded to a deputy attorney general before it’s presented to the president, Ablin said.

The government defines a presidential pardon as an "official act of forgiveness that removes civil infirmities stemming from the conviction," Ablin said. Along with the pardon comes the return of rights stripped from most convicted felons, including the right to own or possess firearms.

Johnston said Friday that he has not heard anything since filing his pardon application. He said he has not taken advantage of his friendship with Robert Blossman to give him a possible edge in the process.

Blossman is a retired Secret Service agent who is now ranch manager at Bush’s 1,600-acre spread near Crawford. Could he possibly put in a good word for Johnston this weekend if, for instance, he and the president wind up clearing cedars together in the back pasture?

"I could never do that," Johnston said. "I value my friendship with Robert higher than anything that happens to me. I just don’t think it would be appropriate to ask."

After discovery of the incendiary devices, Johnston wrote letters to then-Attorney General Reno, saying his supervisors and FBI officials were continuing the cover-up and misleading Reno. He claims he was wrongfully singled out for prosecution as a whistle-blower, especially when others caught lying were not prosecuted.

"I was naive in a really weird way," Johnston said Friday. "You wouldn’t think I would be as a former federal prosecutor, but I was. I thought they wanted to get to the bigger picture and wanted to know the truth."

Some of Johnston’s Justice Department supervisors also were called before Danforth’s grand jury. Unlike him, they invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and were not charged.

Johnston said friends such as Parnell McNamara, a retired deputy U.S. Marshal, encouraged him to seek the pardon.

"If any person ever deserved a pardon, it is Bill Johnston," McNamara said. "Bill Johnston did more to help clean up Waco and Texas than any other 10 people, and to see this happen to him was very, very sad. He is a very honorable person. This never should have happened in the first place."

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