Christic Institute

brought to light

The Christic [kris-tikInstitute was a public interest law firm founded in 1980 by Daniel Sheehan, his wife, Sara Nelson and their partner, William J. Davis, a Jesuit priest, after the successful conclusion of their work on the Silkwood case. Karen Silkwood was an American chemical technician and labor union activist known for raising concerns about worker safety in a nuclear facility. She is most famous for her mysterious death, which was the subject of a victorious lawsuit against the chemical company Kerr-McGee.

Based on the ecumenical teachings of French philosopher and Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and on the lessons they learned from their experience in the Silkwood fight, the Christic Institute combined investigation, litigation, education and organizing into a unique model for social reform in the United States. Christic represented victims of the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island; they prosecuted KKK members for killing civil rights demonstrators in the Greensboro Massacre, and they defended Catholic workers providing sanctuary to Salvadoran refugees (American Sanctuary Movement).

Its headquarters were based in Washington, D.C. with offices in several other major cities. The Institute received funding from a nationwide network of grass-roots donors, as well as organizations like the New World Foundation, a civil rights group in New York. Most famously, the Institute uncovered the Iran Contra Affair, and led the lawsuit at the heart of the scandal. Today, the Christic Institute has been succeeded by the Romero Institute, and remains under the same leadership, with Daniel Sheehan as Chief Counsel and Sara Nelson as Executive Director. The Institute’s current focus is the Lakota People’s Law Project, which seeks to end the epidemic of child seizures of Native American Lakota children in South Dakota. The graphic novel ‘Brought to Light’ by writers Alan Moore and Joyce Brabner used material from lawsuits filed by the Christic Institute.

In 1977, Daniel Sheehan was approached by leaders of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Among them was Sara Nelson, NOW’s Labor Committee Chair, who was part of a broad coalition of progressive groups seeking to bring attention to the death of Karen Silkwood. A chemical technician and union activist, Silkwood died when her car was run off the road on her way to meet with a ‘New York Times’ reporter. She had told the reporter she would bring evidence of irregularities and safety violations at the plutonium fuel rods plant where she worked. Davis, Sheehan and Nelson formed an immediate bond. In concert with their allies they filed a lawsuit on behalf of Silkwood’s children. They organized a massive public education and organizing campaign to put a spotlight on the case. They won a record-setting judgment that established new precedent in liability law and effectively ended construction of all new nuclear power plants in the US. Dan and Sara also started a family.

Following the successful conclusion of the Silkwood case, Sara Nelson and Daniel Sheehan officially started the Christic Institute in 1980, in order to continue their public interest work. Six months before the Iran-contra affair was publicly exposed, the Christic Institute filed ‘Avirgan v. Hull.’ The Institute did so in response to a bombing in La Penca, Nicaragua that killed eight people and injured twelve others, including a journalist from ABC. Investigation of the incident by Christic employees revealed involvement in the bombing by former intelligence officials and private ‘soldiers of fortune’ who were supplying arms for the Contra war against Nicaragua. Acting under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the Christic Institute was granted broad investigative powers by the court. The Institute’s suit and public education campaign created broad public awareness of the Iran-Contra Affair, eventually forcing the appointment of Special Counsel Lawrence Walsh.

Using these powers to compel testimony and subpoena evidence, the Institute revealed: 1) Drug trafficking to finance the contra war against Nicaragua: with the knowledge of officials in the White House, Justice Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, key figures in the covert Contra supply operation smuggled cocaine and other drugs from Colombia to the United States through contra-controlled bases in Central America. 2) A pattern of criminal activity in the conduct of covert operations: major figures implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal have a criminal history dating back to covert operations in Cuba, Southeast Asia and the Middle East that included drug trafficking, gun running, money laundering and political assassinations. 3) Existence of a lawless ‘secret government’ fighting covert wars worldwide: elements of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council are operating outside the effective control of Congress and the American people, enlisting the services of narcotics traffickers and professional assassins, hiding behind dummy corporations and secret bank accounts, operating independent of democratic oversight and with impunity.

‘Avirgan v. Hull’ was filed on behalf of journalists Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey against more than two dozen individuals, some of whom were to emerge as figures in the Iran-Contra scandals. Avirgan was present at the La Penca bombing of a press conference being held by Nicaraguan Contra leader Edén Pastora. Three journalists were killed and Pastora and Avirgan were among the wounded. In 1985, Avirgan and Honey charged a reputed CIA contract employee, John Floyd Hull, of being involved in the La Penca bombing. Hull unsuccessfully sued the reporters for defamation, who had retained the Institute’s Sheehan as counsel. Shortly afterward, Sheehan and the Institute brought a massive (RICO) suit, charging that the La Penca bombing was a result of a conspiracy carried out by a ‘secret team’ that had operated since the 1950s outside the control of government oversight.

Ultimately, the suit failed to win any civil judgment against the defendants. President George H. W. Bush pardoned the principal conspirators and the case was dismissed by Federal Judge James Lawrence King. According to the ‘New York Times,’ the case was dismissed by Judge King at least in part due to ‘the fact that the vast majority of the 79 witnesses Mr. Sheehan cites as authorities were either dead, unwilling to testify, fountains of contradictory information or at best one person removed from the facts they were describing.’ A Nixon appointee, King was later discovered to have been a Member of the Board of Directors of organized-crime accountant Meyer Lansky’s Miami National Bank as well as a legal consultant to the Central Intelligence Agency. The final blows came when Judge King ordered Christic to pay one million dollars of the defendant’s legal fees and the IRS stripped the Institute of its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status after claiming the suit was politically-motivated. The fine was levied in accordance with ‘Rule 11’ of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure which can penalize lawyers for frivolous lawsuits.

In the wake of the dismissal, Christic attorneys and Honey and Avirgan traded accusations over who was to blame for the failure of the case. Avirgan complained that Sheehan had handled matters poorly by chasing unsubstantiated ‘wild allegations’ and conspiracy theories, rather than paying attention to core factual issues. Avirgan and Honey eventually claimed that the bombing was carried out by an Argentinian working under the direction of the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Afterwards, Daniel Sheehan and Sara Nelson regrouped, and became the leaders of the Christic Institute’s successor organization, the Romero Institute, named after Archbishop Oscar Romero, the former Archbishop of El Salvador, an outspoken critic of government sponsored murders and disappearances in El Salvador during the 1970s. The Romero institute was founded in 1996 and it’s current project, the protection of the Lakota has been going on since 2005.


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