Sunday, January 14, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`The Fall Guy' Speaks Out -- But Convicted Ex-Boeing Official Refuses To Name Sources


COPYRIGHT, 1990, Seattle Times Company

A few days before he was sentenced to prison for his part in what prosecutors called a black market in classified Pentagon budget documents, former Boeing official Richard Fowler spoke on the record for the first time about his work, his case and the reasons he chose to go to jail rather than reveal his sources. He talked for more than 20 hours with Seattle Times reporter Duff Wilson, on condition his remarks not be published before his sentencing last Friday.

SPRINGFIELD, Va. - In a rented brick townhouse on a quiet street here last week, Richard L. Fowler's friends and relatives phoned to wonder why he didn't just tell authorities what they wanted to know.

Had he talked, he might not be in jail today.

For more than four years, federal investigators had zeroed in on the man they would call the defense industry's mother lode of classified Pentagon documents. It ended with the shutting of a cell door Wednesday morning, when Fowler went to jail for refusing to say who gave him the secret budget documents. On Friday, he received a two-year prison sentence for passing them on to The Boeing Co. and other major defense contractors.

All along, Fowler has insisted it was the job that a Boeing vice president had specifically hired him to do.

He thought it was legal. He said everybody was doing it. It was ``as common as trading baseball cards.''

Now Fowler, 64, describes himself as ``the fall guy'' in a government ``witch hunt'' to plug the Pentagon leaks. But he refuses to name the sources, despite the pleas of lawyers and family members.

``Yeah, I know I make you mad,'' Fowler told a friend on the telephone a few days before he went to jail. ``I've made a lot of people angry, and a lot of people don't understand, and I'm not asking that people understand. But if I talked, I wouldn't be able to face myself in the mirror.''

Fowler, a senior marketing analyst for Boeing between 1978 and 1986, is the first person to be convicted in what prosecutors said was a far-reaching conspiracy among employees at Boeing and other defense contractors with whom he shared and traded the documents.

On Dec. 7 Fowler was convicted of one count of conspiracy to defraud the government, 18 counts of conveying government documents without authority, five counts of converting the documents to his use and 15 counts of mail fraud for having them sent to Boeing.

But his own view is that the investigation and prosecution of him boiled down to a test of ``my integrity, trustworthiness and loyalty.''

In one of a stack of ``position papers'' he has painstakingly hand-written over these past many months, Fowler says, ``I am here today not for what I did; I'm here for what I did not do'' - name his sources. Fowler says he was offered immunity in March 1987 if he would cooperate. The chief investigator on the case said his office checked with prosecutors and they could not recall any such offer. But no one disputes that Fowler's sources are the ultimate goal of the continuing federal probe.

``Good, patriotic, honest government employees who had no idea what they were doing was wrong,'' Fowler calls them, his voice rising with emotion.

He shuffles through his piles of notes to remind himself of all that has happened. He has lost weight and developed a skin condition from nerves, he says.

Though his lawyer advised him against giving any interviews, he is talking, he says, because he feels the public might understand what the justice system did not.

The Pentagon classifies its spending projections for weapons systems largely to keep them out of the hands of meddlesome members of Congress before they are finalized and presented by the president, according to Fowler and two other former Pentagon workers who knew him. They said the plans were often informally released to companies in the defense-contracting business so they could do a better job of using research money and preparing to compete for contracts.

Fowler's job was to obtain Pentagon financial and budgetary information for Boeing. From years of work inside the Pentagon, he had the best Air Force sources. He swapped ``secret'' documents with industry representatives who had better sources in the Army, Navy and Office of the Secretary of Defense. Fowler, who had government clearance to handle ``secret'' documents legally given to him, entered the documents in a Boeing log book and assumed the practice was legal because Pentagon inspectors checked the log every six months.

Boeing officials have admitted that the company acquired and used the documents, but stopped five years ago. Boeing spokesman Paul Binder says the company will have no other comment on the Fowler case. And Fowler has taken on the singular responsibility of protecting the sources who made him a success at Boeing.

His sources' jobs, their pensions, perhaps even their freedom, are at stake, Fowler says. He knows the experience of personal ruin.

After 35 years of government work and eight years at Boeing, Fowler is nearly broke. He and Muriel, his wife of 35 years, owe back taxes. They rent their house, lease their cars. They are getting by on Muriel's job with a real-estate office and his $231-a-month Boeing pension. Their federal pension went down the drain with the felony conviction.

``There isn't a soul out there who can put themselves in our shoes,'' says Muriel Fowler, 62. ``And I'm not talking hardened criminals - I'm talking patriotic, law-abiding citizens. Right now I am very bitter, and I'm not through fighting yet. That's all I'm going to say.''

``Of course my family has some reservations,'' Richard Fowler says of his decision to protect his Pentagon sources. ``They'd have to. Like my daughter, at the beginning, the very beginning, said `Dad, I'd rather have a snitch for a father than a jailbird.' And then she's turned completely around, and now she's saying `My father's a hero.' ''

``I have to admire him,'' Muriel Fowler admits. ``But I don't always understand it.''

Fowler said the sources didn't need to ask him to assure their anonymity when he was getting several hundred classified budget documents over the years. They didn't imagine they were doing anything criminal. And the sources haven't needed to beg him - or even thank him - for keeping the secret since.

In fact, Fowler said, he hasn't heard a word from any of his old sources in nearly two years.

``I don't care what they expect or don't expect,'' Fowler says with the kind of resignation acquired from years of preparing to go to prison. ``I'm doing this out of my own - what do I say? compassion? - my own self-respect.''

He thinks his sources are ``smart enough to just stay away and have no contact. I mean, these are not people who are inconsiderate, but they know enough to keep a respectful distance.''

Boeing has kept its distance, too. Nobody from Boeing telephoned Fowler for a year and a half until last week. Then three employees called to wish him well. One said he had gotten his supervisor's permission to phone.

``Well, I can understand why I haven't gotten a lot of calls from people,'' Fowler said. ``They don't know what to say. All I can say is, hell, I can take it, because I can hold my head up high.''

Why is Fowler so steadfastly protecting his sources?

``We wonder about it all the time,'' an in-law said.

The price Fowler is paying also causes people to wonder if he has hidden motives.

Is he being paid off? Investigators have never suggested that Fowler, his sources or Boeing was involved in payoffs or bribery of any form. The only money involved was Fowler's salary, which rose from $29,500 to $56,200 during eight his years with Boeing.

So, is he protecting some military brass or Boeing executive? Again, nobody connected to the case has alleged that. Fowler was a middle-level worker with a high-school education. He said he kept his nose to his work and stayed out of company politics. Fowler's concerns are with smaller, more personal things, like his old friends' pensions.

Is it possible he is making the sources up? Did he sneak into the Pentagon and steal the documents to impress Boeing? ``Absolutely not,'' says the chief of the investigation, Michael Costello of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, a Pentagon watchdog.

There is simply no explanation to rival the one that Fowler gives - that he got the documents from old friends, whom he will not betray.

``If you're in trouble, why pull somebody else in with you?'' Fowler asks.

Costello wants the leakers punished to send a message to other people who might give away classified documents.

``They were put in a position of trust, and they violated that,'' Costello said in a recent interview. ``They independently and capriciously made decisions to give this information to an individual who was not entitled to it by any stretch. There are a lot of reasons these people should be slam-dunked.''

But so far, Fowler is the only one convicted in the case. And so far, he's taken his punishment with equanimity. He stood erect before the jurors who found him guilty, and looked them calmly in the eye.

For now, Fowler is willing to go to jail for his Pentagon sources, though he sees a point when he might name them. In nine months, it will have been five years since he received his last classified document from one of them. The statute of limitations on criminal charges will expire.

Costello agreed that the statute of limitations was ``the controlling factor'' in the investigation of the leaks. He said the government has a good idea who the sources are, but not enough to prosecute.

``We need a little bit to put this thing over the edge, and Fowler could be that,'' he said. ``We'll see how long he can sit in jail.''

The case has national importance. With or without his sources, Fowler set the precedent in what Costello says will be similar prosecutions this year of ``a lot of people and a lot of companies'' that were involved in unauthorized use of Pentagon budget documents.

Fowler says he has handled classified documents since he was a 16-year-old messenger for the War Department. His father was a civil engineer who helped build one side of the Pentagon. During World War II as a gunner, the younger Fowler suffered a broken neck when a B-29 went down in the ocean during a training exercise.

Fowler missed action because of the accident, but he did report to the Philippines and flew over Hiroshima and Nagasaki four days after the atomic bombs hit.

Fowler went to work as a civilian in the Pentagon the next year. He progressed through the ranks until he reached a job in the Air Force Research and Development office.

``The job was challenging. I had established myself. I had a good name.''

And there he stayed for 18 years. As a budget officer for missile programs, Fowler had frequent contact with Boeing and other contractors. He received the Award for Meritorious Civilian Service, the Pentagon's top award for a civilian.

At home, Fowler took pride in his principles. He picketed a local car dealer for two days when the dealer wouldn't fix a problem on his teen-age son's new car.

Fowler quit the Pentagon in 1978. He said President Jimmy Carter's zero-based budgeting was a paperwork nightmare. Shortly after that, Boeing offered him a job. Fowler said he was hired by Ben Plymale, then vice president for marketing. (Plymale died in 1981.)

Fowler says Boeing had scores of marketing analysts who were all trying to get inside information, including budget projections, at the Pentagon. Fowler's job was to get those budget documents, freeing up his fellow analysts for other areas.

Fowler says Plymale told him his sources were nobody's business, and Boeing's security chief told him it was legal as long as he entered the documents into Boeing's classified-documents security system.

Financial intelligence-gathering was nothing new at Boeing. When Fowler joined Boeing in 1978, a woman named Gloria Mahaffey was operating a secret library in the company's office in Kent. Boeing kept its cache of classified Pentagon budget documents there for review by select marketing officials, Mahaffey said at Fowler's trial.

In 1979, for reasons that are unclear, Boeing began handling the classified documents with tighter security. They were all logged into the company's classified documents accountability system in Rosslyn, Va. Inspectors for the Defense Investigative Service checked the log twice a year, and they didn't raise questions until 1986.

Fowler said the log was one reason his Pentagon sources trusted him so much. They knew Boeing was handling the documents carefully. He said it was also a reason the government targeted Boeing. They had a road map to the evidence.

The worst mistake Fowler will admit to is putting some of the classified information in his weekly activity reports. Those were not classified. In some cases, his superior repeated the information in his own report, which was circulated to 268 Boeing employees.

Fowler says Boeing wanted the documents for many reasons. The company could direct its research money to areas the Pentagon was planning to finance. It could look for opportunities to compete.

Fowler was named one of Boeing's Marketing Employees of the Quarter in June 1986. Everything was going along fine - fine, that is, until the Pentagon's Defense Investigative Service started raising questions.

Behind the scenes in the early 1980s, Defense Department investigators and the Department of Justice had been trying to decide whether to crack down on the bootlegging. It was part of a broader move to plug leaks.

One former head of the Defense Procurement Fraud Unit of the Justice Department argued that the cases were not conspiracies. A Defense Department inspector general appealed to higher-ups to pressure the Justice Department to bring a case.

In October 1985, Bernie Zettl, a consultant for the Connecticut-based GTE Corp., was indicted.

Fowler says Boeing speeded up its usual schedule of destroying out-of-date documents after he heard a warning that contractors should get rid of their classified Pentagon documents.

Push came to shove over Fowler's sources in 1986. The Defense Investigative Service challenged Boeing's possession of 59 classified budget documents.

Fowler told a company investigator that he had obtained the reports from five friends in the Air Force Research and Development office. He says he was conned into identifying one of them, who had retired, on the promise that investigators would be satisfied the leak was plugged.

But that was not enough, he says. And after he saw the ``devastated look'' on that source's face when he told him the news, Fowler resolved never to reveal another source.

Boeing fired Fowler in September 1986. He says he is not bitter.

``They had no choice but to fire me,'' Fowler explains. ``I violated the industrial security manual by not cooperating with the investigation. Boeing was facing suspension from government contracts if they didn't do something.''

Boeing, he says, is the best company he ever worked for.

Muriel Fowler scoffs at the idea. ``You got screwed, and you didn't even get a kiss!''

Fowler, sipping a mai tai, shrugs. ``I can't do nothin' about it.''

Last year, Fowler says, the government twice offered him plea bargains on crimes with a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison if he gave up his sources. He says he rejected those offers, too.

Fowler's stubbornness grew as his trial approached last month. He was hoping to get off. He lost the gamble.

Six officials with other companies and 10 current and former Boeing workers were granted immunity as part of the Fowler prosecution. Former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci and a number of generals testified that the classified reports should never have been released; Fowler responds that they were out of touch with the reality at the working level.

The jury deliberated just two hours. One juror later said many of the jurors had believed Fowler was a scapegoat but had no choice but to convict him.

Fowler's insistence on protecting sources had influenced the trial strategy. He says one of the main reasons he did not testify on his own behalf was that he believed he would have been asked once again to name his sources. When he refused, he could have been held in contempt of court. That would have meant going to jail and missing Christmas at home with his family.

Last Monday, Fowler's lawyer sent him one more appeal to name the sources. The lawyer, Cary Feldman, wrote Fowler that investigators already had a good idea who the sources were. He argued that Fowler's cooperation with a grand jury probe would not hurt the sources much, if he didn't tie them to specific documents.

Refusal, Feldman warned, would mean certain jail time and possibly a longer prison sentence.

Fowler didn't budge. On Tuesday, he says, he told the federal grand jury he could only reveal the sources for documents named in 162 of the 334 ``overt acts'' cited in his indictment. Those sources were dead or had been granted immunity. They were employees of Boeing or other contractors.

Fowler says he feels free to speak about Boeing because the company obtained immunity for its employees' acts as part of a corporate plea agreement last November.

Boeing itself, unscathed by other recent contracting scandals, admitted guilt to one felony for receiving classified budget reports and agreed in a negotiated plea bargain to pay $5.2 million restitution and fines.

Boeing made nearly $3 million per working day in profits last year.

``The Boeing Company's fine, in exchange for total immunity, was a bargain, but appears to have sacrificed a single participant,'' retired Air Force Lt. Col. Richard C. Coupland Jr. wrote in a letter to U.S. District Judge Albert Bryan Jr. before Fowler's sentencing.

Boeing's field office in Rosslyn is applying for reinstatement from a suspension action that has prevented its estimated 100 employees from having contact with government contract officers.''

Meanwhile, Boeing's work can be done from its other offices - ``as if nothing had happened,'' says Charles H. Welling Jr., manager of Boeing Aerospace Company's field marketing offices from 1974 to 1979, who also wrote the judge on Fowler's behalf.

``Although Dick broke the law, he never derived any personal gain from his actions but was always motivated by a desire to benefit the company,'' wrote Welling, who had helped hire Fowler.

At a Christmas party last month, a group of Pentagon and industry people were talking about the Fowler case and agreed they had let him down, according to one industry consultant who used to work with Fowler at the Pentagon.

``Everybody in the industry is scared,'' he said. ``What could we do? Speak up for Dick? If we did, we'd probably be targeted.''

Anthony Asterita of Mount Vernon, Va., worked with Fowler in the Pentagon between 1974 and 1978, then retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel and went to work in the industry. He said the ``secret'' budget information actually had little value and was widely shared through the early 1980s.

``The value to a contractor like Boeing is to structure long-range planning,'' Asterita said. ``And who benefits from it? The military benefits from it, because you have a more informed industrial base.''

Asterita said he had to admire what Fowler has done in protecting his sources from harm.

``The guy has made a lot of thought about it, I'm sure,'' he said. ``He is sacrificing family life at his age, which is children and grandchildren, in order to stick to what he believes.''

Published Correction Date: 90/01/21 - Richard Fowler, A Former Boeing Official Convicted Of 39 Felonies For Obtaining Classified Pentagon Budget Documents, Still Qualifies For A Federal Pension. Fowler Worked Nearly 36 Years As A Civilian Budget Analyst Before He Joined Boeing. This Article Said Incorrectly That Fowler Lost His Federal Pension When He Was Convicted.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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