Government prosecutors pulled from Waco case

Reuters, Sept 14, 1999
By David Lawsky

WASHINGTON, Sept 14, 1999 (Reuters) - A lawyer who told Attorney General Janet Reno that information may have been withheld from her about the deadly 1993 Waco siege has been pulled off the case, the Justice Department announced on Tuesday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Johnston and his boss, U.S. Attorney Bill Blagg, were both removed under orders from Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder in Washington.

The Justice Department transferred the case to J. Michael Bradford, the U.S. Attorney in Beaumont, Texas, who said his goal will be to "foster public confidence."

Bradford's office will defend the government next month, when a suit brought by survivors and families of those who died in a fire at the Branch Davidian compound on April 19, 1993, goes to trial. The compound burst into flames, killing David Koresh and 80 of his followers, after government tanks moved in to break down its walls.

Johnston raised questions late last month about whether Reno was getting the full story from her department about the assault.

"Facts may have been kept from you -- and quite possibly are being kept from you even now," Johnston wrote Reno.

Johnston told the attorney general that evidence the FBI used pyrotechnic CS tear gas grenades a few hours before the fire began may have been kept under wraps by "individuals or components within the Department of Justice."

After six years of denials, the FBI admitted last month agents fired the potentially incendiary military tear gas rounds at the roof of a concrete bunker near the compound. But it said there was no evidence the rounds helped start the fire.

The Waco standoff began on Feb. 28, 1993, when federal agents trying to search the compound and arrest Koresh on weapons charges engaged in a shootout with sect members. Four federal agents were killed.

Time has done little to calm the anger and suspicion aroused by the case. The U.S. attorney who lost jurisdiction said as much in explaining why his authority was removed.

"Members of my office advised law enforcement agencies before and during the siege and handled the criminal trial in 1994," said Blagg, of Houston, in a statement. "Because of their roles in matters that may be under investigation, my office has been recused from all related matters to avoid any potential or appearance of a conflict of interest."

Bradford, who took over the case, said his first job would be to familiarize himself with the facts.

"Our main objective is to assist in providing truthful information in order to foster public confidence," he said in a statement.

Reno has appointed former Sen. John Danforth, a moderate Republican, to examine the government's handling of the case.

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