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Former FirstEnergy Corp. engineer Andrew Siemaszko was convicted yesterday on three of five counts of intentionally misleading federal regulators about the danger at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ottawa County in 2001.
The verdicts were the final ones in a seven-year saga that has had national implications for the nuclear industry as it plans for a rebirth to help meet America's rising energy needs.
Siemaszko emigrated from Poland to the United States during the Cold War. According to one of his attorneys, he came in 1978 to live "the American dream."
But yesterday, he took a deep breath and stood mute next to his chief counsel, Chuck Boss of Maumee, as verdicts from a jury of seven men and five women were read aloud in U.S. District Court in Toledo.
His wife, Sandra, sat directly behind him. She showed little emotion until she was consoled by co-counsel Billie Pirner Garde of Washington.
The verdicts came after nearly 17 hours of deliberations over 2 1/2 days. They were read by Judge Jack Zouhary, an impromptu replacement for Judge David Katz, who was away on another matter.
Judge Katz presided over both the Siemaszko trial, which lasted two weeks, and the trial for ac-cused co-conspirators David Geisen and Rodney N. Cook, which took nearly all of October.
"I'm disappointed," Siemaszko of Spring, Texas, told reporters. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He was released under terms of his existing bond. A sentencing date has not been scheduled.
Geisen of DePere, Wis., was Siemaszko's supervisor at Davis-Besse. He was fined $7,500 after he was convicted on three of five counts in last fall's trial.
Mr. Cook, a contractor from Millington, Tenn., was acquitted on all four counts against him.
FirstEnergy paid a record $33.5 million for its corporate role in the cover-up.
The investigation led to the indictments against the trio and $28 million of FirstEnergy's fine. The other $5.5 million stemmed from a civil investigation.
The two assistant U.S. attorneys who prosecuted the Siemaszko case, Tom Ballantine and Christian Stickan, deferred questions to the Justice Department's headquarters in Washington.
A statement issued last night quoted Ronald J. Tenpas, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's environment and natural resources division, as saying there "will be consequences" for nuclear workers who conceal or falsify information.
The Justice Department statement went on to say that the type of nozzle cracks in Davis-Besse's old reactor head could have resulted "in a potentially serious accident that would stress the plant's safety systems."
Davis-Besse became the focus of a national investigation in the fall of 2001 after circular-shaped cracks were found in nozzles at a similar plant in South Carolina. Such flaws could allow the nozzles to pop off like champagne corks, allowing radioactive steam to form.
FirstEnergy fought efforts to have Davis-Besse shut down before Dec. 31, 2001, for an inspection, three months before the plant's 13th refueling outage was to begin on March 31, 2002.
The NRC compromised halfway and let the plant operate until Feb. 16, 2002, based on information that FirstEnergy provided to it in the fall of 2001. The utility blames the trio for generating the information it turned over.
Davis-Besse remained closed for the next two years, during which time investigators learned the plant's emergency coolant system might not have worked because of design flaws. They since have been fixed.
Mr. Boss said a motion is being prepared asking for Judge Katz to throw out the jury verdict on the grounds it was not allowed to hear crucial evidence. If that is denied, an appeal would be the next step, Mr. Boss said.
Ms. Garde, recognized by a prosecution witness and others as a nationally known attorney for nuclear whistle-blowers, said the case has ramifications for the industry even though her client was denied whistle-blower status by a U.S. Department of Labor judge in an earlier proceeding.
That decision was made after a controversial statement from an investigator who claimed he got an admission out of Siemaszko despite having no documentation, signed confession, or recording.
"This makes the nuclear industry less safe and discourages candor among engineers. It sets the industry back 20 years," according to Ms. Garde, who had implored the jury to acquit her client to hold the government "accountable."
She and activist groups, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, claimed Siemaszko had been railroaded and used as a scapegoat.
Records introduced during the trial show FirstEnergy had not adequately trained him to be in charge of the reactor head. He was put in charge of it barely a year after FirstEnergy had recruited him to work at the plant.
"We believe his lack of training was material [to the case] and the jury did not pick up on that," Mr. Boss said.
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