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Published: Saturday, 8/23/2008

Jury reconvenes next week in Davis-Besse trial

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Siemaszko Siemaszko
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A U.S. District Court jury in Toledo will reconvene Monday to continue deliberating the fate of Andrew Siemaszko, a former FirstEnergy Corp. engineer charged with five counts of lying or withholding information from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about Davis-Besse's operating status in the fall of 2001.

Jurors yesterday heard closing arguments until noon, then stayed until nearly 6 p.m. sifting through evidence presented to them over the last two weeks.

Billie Pirner Garde, recognized by a prosecution witness and others as an attorney with a national reputation for defending nuclear whistleblowers, broke down in tears during closing arguments while maintaining her client's innocence.

She said Mr. Siemaszko, a native of Poland, came to the United States during the Cold War to experience the American dream but has had that become a nightmare for him and his family.

"He came to this country as a dream from a communist country in 1978, where the government doesn't have the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," she said.

Ms. Garde said her client refused to plead to a lesser charge because of his faith in the American justice system.

"I'm not sure I would have been so brave," she said.

She said she was proud to defend Mr. Siemaszko "to prove Andrew was innocent and to hold the [American] government accountable."

Thomas Ballantine, an assistant U.S. attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice's environmental crimes section, told the jury Mr. Siemaszko is guilty of concealing information vital to northern Ohio's safety.

"Andrew Siemaszko is not a whistleblower," Mr. Ballantine said. "This case should not be construed as a whistleblower case. This case is about a person who told the NRC a lie, who covered up information."

He said the government is proud of the case it brought against him.

Co-prosecutor Christian Stickan began the government's summation with this: "The NRC needs people to be honest, truthful, and accurate."

The two prosecutors said Mr. Siemaszko lied to help his new employer keep Davis-Besse online. Nuclear plants generate more than $1 million worth of electricity a day.

FirstEnergy recruited Mr. Siemaszko from another utility in 1999. A year later, he was put in charge of the reactor head for Davis-Besse's 2000 refueling outage - a major responsibility that Mr. Siemaszko's attorneys said he was thrust into without proper training.

The four-member defense team, which also included Chuck Boss, a criminal lawyer from Maumee, and Michael Brothers, a lawyer who is a former vice president of a nuclear plant, claimed throughout the trial that Mr. Siemaszko was set up by the NRC, the Department of Justice, and the utility as a scapegoat for the near-catastrophe at the plant in Ottawa County.

Mr. Siemaszko's attorneys maintain he was trying to get Davis Besse's old reactor head fixed in 2000.

Upon inspection in early April of 2002, the head was found in a near-ruptured state - the worst ever for an in-service U.S. nuclear reactor. Its dangerous condition was blamed on years of neglect and a massive cover-up.

Subsequent laboratory tests showed it was a statistical fluke that it held together. If it hadn't, deadly radioactive steam would have formed in containment for the first time since the half-core meltdown of Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island Unit 2 nuclear plant in 1979.

FirstEnergy has paid a record $33.5 million for its corporate role in the cover-up. Two alleged co-conspirators were tried last year. One was fined $7,500 after being convicted on three of five counts; the other was acquitted of all four charges against him. The case is one of the most intensely investigated in nuclear history.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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