WASHINGTON (AP) - James B. Francis Jr. was busy raising money for George W. Bush's presidential campaign and overseeing the Texas Department of Public Safety when he gave the order this summer that reignited the Waco controversy.
After inquiries from an independent filmmaker and a lawyer who had long challenged the government's version of events, Francis instructed the Texas Rangers in June to reopen the vaults that contained 12 tons of evidence gathered from the scorched remains of the Branch Davidian compound.
The Rangers' review turned up a spent military tear-gas canister, forcing the Justice Department and FBI to recant six years of denials and acknowledge that federal agents fired potentially incendiary tear gas on the day the standoff ended in a spectacular fire.
Now a special prosecutor has been named to investigate whether there was a government cover-up. Republican lawmakers have called for Attorney General Janet Reno's resignation. And the Clinton-Gore administration finds itself coping with a political headache it thought had ended years ago.
Though an ardent supporter of Texas Gov. Bush, Francis insists politics wasn't the motivation behind a decision he says "unleashed a series of forces that were apparently a lot bigger than what I recognized."
"I never dreamed that it would turn into something like this," Francis said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Appointed by Bush as chairman of the Public Safety Commission, the Dallas businessman also serves as a key fund-raiser for the Bush presidential campaign and has been a close ally during Bush's past gubernatorial races.
Francis, who works in the oil and gas business, is one of the "pioneers" who have committed to raise at least $100,000 for Bush's presidential bid. He also played prominent roles in the campaigns of Texas Republican Sens. Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Despite his GOP pedigree, Francis said he is "doing everything in my power to not politicize this" controversy.
Bush has refrained from joining the chorus of GOP attacks on the Justice Department and Reno, although his chief of staff played a role in hooking up the activists that set Francis in motion.
During a campaign swing through South Carolina last week, Bush praised Francis' role in raising questions about Waco while cautioning Texas officials to avoid direct involvement in the independent inquiry.
"The problem is, since I'm running for president, it could politicize the investigation," Bush said.
Francis is praised by David Hardy, a Tucson, Ariz., lawyer who was stymied in his efforts to use the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to federal evidence about the siege that ended April 19, 1993, with the deaths of David Koresh and some 80 followers. The government says the blaze was set by cult members.
"I don't think there's any question that he is the shining light of this entire inquiry," Hardy said.
While the Texas Rangers possessed much of the debris from the 51-day siege, the Justice Department had control. Hardy and others, including independent filmmaker Michael McNulty, were shuttled back and forth between the Rangers and Justice.
Francis decided to put an end to the "Catch 22."
"Legitimate inquiries from the media and others to get access to the evidence were just being stonewalled," he said.
After directing the Rangers to re-examine some of the evidence in their lockers, Francis told the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Rangers, to press a federal court to take over the evidence. U.S. District Judge Walter Smith quickly obliged.
Francis' involvement came after Hardy reached out to friends in the gun lobby. They put him in touch with former state Sen. Jerry Patterson, and Patterson contacted Bush chief of staff Clay Johnson, who referred him to Francis.
"I said, 'This may sound like another conspiracy theory, but there is something, in my view, to this,"' Patterson said.
Patterson said Francis wasn't eager to seize the stage.
"I think what happened to Jim Francis is he initially wanted to be very low-key and then as more and more revelations began to surface, he became angry and disgusted, as all of us are," Patterson said. "This was not a role that he sought."
Francis voices no regrets.
"It's important that the facts come out, whatever those are," he said. "I'm not a hero, but I have done the right thing.
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