Commentary
Federal Tactics Put Us All at Risk

  by Steve Miller
  copyright 1996, Electric Nevada

Jerry Keenan, said a federal jury Thursday, was guilty of lying to federal agents investigating an attempted bombing of Internal Revenue Services offices last December in Reno.
But how strong was the evidence behind the conviction -- really?
According to Keenan defense attorney Ben Walker, "The government didn't even come close to meeting their burden of proof.
If we can be hauled into a court on that kind of evidence," said Walker, "we're all at risk."
And later, to Electric Nevada, he said what the verdict actually showed was "a little prejudicial spill-over" from the coming trial of the main bombing suspect, Joseph Bailie.
After all, the defense counsel emphasized, when two federal agents got Keenan out of bed in the middle of the night a couple of days after the bomb was discovered, the 53-year-old nurseryman did help them, providing information which eventually led them to the chief suspect, now indicted.
Nevertheless, said Walker, that hadn't seemed to matter to the government.
"Because he didn't remember, he got indicted," he told the jury. "Doesn't that send a message that if the agents come to your house, you should shut the door in their faces?
Federal prosecutors, on the other hand, argued in their summation to jurors that the help Keenan gave was not significant for two reasons: he was not definite enough, and the investigators already had much of the information he gave them.
"How is he helping by waffling on numbers, or waffling on names?" asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Rachow, of Reno. And Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Connell, of Las Vegas, argued that Keenan had demonstrated, even in his personal testimony before the jury, an indifference to the truth.
"That is not so important when it's a question of whether there were 20 or 6 in the coffee klatch.. but when it's whether Joe Bailie has planted a bomb, you don't have that luxury," argued O'Connell.
Keenan had, at different times, given different answers to questions about the number of people who congregated for early morning coffee and dominoes at his Green Valley Garden Center. One answer had been six; another had been 20.
In the context of the trial it became clear that the first answer had to do with the number of people who made up the core of the group and frequented the gathering most often. The second answer had to do with the total number of people who, at different times, dropped in.
But the taciturn Keenan nearly always gives short, clipped, answers, and habitually does not explain. That was his pattern in his federal grand jury testimony, it was his pattern testifying in his own trial for perjury, and it was his pattern -- apparent to any observer-- in conversation with friends, family and supporters outside the courtroom during recesses.
And it was a pattern federal prosecutors used to their advantage against the Gardnerville businessman. For though the government never actually contended that Keenan had known "whether Joe Bailie has planted a bomb," the point that IF Bailie had planted a bomb, and IF Keenan had given his habitual terse, clipped, answers, it could have been a problem, seemed to speak to the jury.
"The pattern and the tenor and the limited information that the defendant gave before the Grand Jury bespeak a pattern of disregard for the truth," argued O'Connell. He pointed out that in one response Keenan said he had known of Joe Bailie "three or four years", and in another response, "eight to ten." In their summations both O'Connell and fellow assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Rachow heaped scorn upon what they called Keenan's "very convenient memory," his "fudging" and his "self-serving statements."
"A pattern of disregard for the truth"? Perhaps to some degree, if one uses an absolute, or exact, standard -- one that government prosecutors, it should be noted, also have no chance at all of meeting.
The core questions of the trial came down to paragraph B of count one -- the allegation by the government that Keenan had lied when he told investigators that "Joseph Bailie had been present at the Green Valley Nursery only once, at a time which was several months before the December 17 attempted bombing."
On that particular point, the jury apparently chose to believe it too much of a stretch that Keenan had simply had a failure of memory. On this point, the jury even discounted the testimony of the government's star witness, Del Bidart. Bidart, a member of the morning coffee group at Keenan's nursery for several years, had acknowleged in cross- examination that Keenan did have a bad memory.
What federal prosecutors succesfully exploited, to win their conviction, was an unlovely mannerism of Jerry Keenan -- an habitual ingrained pattern of conversational behavior, where Keenan tends to blurt out whatever is foremost on his mind, even when it might not be directly responsive to the question asked, or even when it might -- in others' eyes -- require more explanation.
A bit like politicians who answer TV journalist's questions with whatever rap they want to give, Keenan seems to have, over the years, developed a habit of reflexively answering
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whatever she feels is most salient or relevant or important, even if sometimes not to the point of what's been asked, and even if, to others, it can be somewhat grating. Coupled with the memory lapse during the agents' middle-of-the-night visit, it seems to have made the difference.
Keenan has been a successful self-employed businessman for the last 24 years in Gardnerville. Having had no boss to answer to, and with employees and a gracious wife to handle a lot of relations with the public, Keenan seems to have let his 'people skills' atrophy. Over time, he's developed something that now looks, in the context of the trial, almost like a disability. It's the sort of deformation one can find in men who've been swallowed, in effect, by certain careers, but the prosecution was able to argue that it "bespoke" an indifference to the truth.
It also could have been what triggered the ATF's initial hostility. As defense counsel Walker got Keenan to acknowledge on the stand, the nurseryman's conversational mode is to make a short, taciturn answer, and then wait for another question.
And it could have been that which didn't work for Keenan the night of December 19. Jim Doreen of the ATF apparently read it as an 'attitude.' And maybe there was something to that. In any case, on that night early in the morning, after being roused from his sleep, Keenan said he only remembered one case where the character known as "Crazy Joe" had visited the Green Valley Garden Center, and that had been several months before. And that was the basis for the one government charge that stuck.
Testimony in the trial later established that Joe Bailie had, in fact, visited the nursery three times. But it was the very first time, late the previous winter, that had set off months of jokes in the coffee group about "Crazy Joe" and "Psycho Joe." Maybe that why Keenan remembered only one incident.
But in context, how important was it whether Keenan remembered the other visits? Why did the government even bother to bring that charge, or the other, dismissed, ones? After all, Keenan did direct the agents to Ricky Hallert, Dell Bidart and Brian Crockett, who knew a good deal more about Joe Bailie, and Keenan did tell the agents the part of Douglas County where he believed "Crazy Joe" lived. All that information was accurate, and -- had the agents had no other help -- would have led them to Bailie.
So Electric Nevada asked Assistant Directory Attorney O'Connell why the government chose to even bring the charges. He wouldn't answer the question, citing Department of Justice rules prohibiting commenting on topics "outside the public record," but O'Connell did acknowledged that they "obviously have the discression."
Maybe the real reason why Keenan was prosecuted can be found in what was never spoken aloud, but was apparent in the way numerous ATF and IRS agents, never called as witnesses, attended the trial and could be found hanging around in the hall during the recesses, or joking with the two assistant U.S. Attorneys or the supervising ATF agent sitting at the prosecution table.
It's not that Thomas O'Connell, Ron Rachow and the ATF and IRS agents who were clustering in the halls, looking over their shoulders at the non-government people who came to support Jerry Keenan, are intrinsically sinister types who sit around and plot Hitlerian evil for the citizens of the United States.
But the trial -- like recent American history -- did demonstrate that they are quite zealous in their desire to "win," and willing to cut corners and shade the truth in their "team" drive to put down those who they see as the enemy. Who are the enemy? People with "anti-government sentiment," "tax protestors," "militia types" and the like. In other words, citizens who question the fundamental legitimacy of much of what they, the federal agents and prosecutors, do.
Neither supermen nor saints, these federal lawmen see themselves as just regular guys who wanted to do good and be respected for that. But they are increasingly isolated from citizens who also resent disrespect -- the disrespect implicit in metasticized, arbitrary, federal power.
Having taken much heat for Waco and Ruby Ridge, the agents now are more careful, but still see such citizens as the 'them' in their us-against-them view of America. Thus, even when not institutionally blocked from explaining what they are doing, these men are often unwilling to do so. They are suspicious of questions, which often bring to their faces sharp sudden looks, furtive with mistrust.
And yet they wield great power over the rest of us, able to levy immense legal expenses and permanently damage reputations of anyone in their path they judge insufficiently deferential.
Is that what really happened in the Keenan case?
Last year, in a Gallup poll surprising to many in the media, a majority of Americans reported they view the U.S. government as a personal threat.
What the federal government was able to do here to a diabetic 53-year-old Gardnerville nurseryman shows why.


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