Navy Whistle Blower Is Driven, but Motive for Zeal Questioned
Robert Jackson nervously picked up a pay phone, dialed the downtown San Diego hotel where a congressman’s aide was staying and whispered, “My life is in danger.”
Jackson proposed a deal. The young sailor claimed he had 2,000 pages of Navy documents that showed case after case of fraud, forgery and kickbacks aboard the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. He was willing to share the materials if in return Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) could keep him off the carrier’s upcoming deployment and away from enlisted men who had threatened him, recalled Dave Gerrie, an administrative aide to Bates.
“He obviously was a shaken young man,” said Gerrie, who met with Jackson on June 5, shortly after receiving the phone call. “He was at times very articulate, very incisive . . . He was being driven, I suspect. One after the other, he dropped a bombshell on my bed until every spot in the room was covered with documents. Obviously, he was onto a problem.”
Events moved swiftly for the baby-faced 26-year-old petty officer, who became a media star as he went toe-to-toe with the Navy, hurling a series of startling allegations concerning the ineptness of the supply system aboard aircraft carriers. Jackson’s allegations of sailors routinely tossing expensive materials to the sea and sloppy bookkeeping procedures created a flurry of nationwide stories and congressional inquiries that forced high-ranking Navy officials in Washington to order an investigation.
On Tuesday, the high point of Jackson’s whistle-blowing career will occur in Washington, where he is scheduled to testify before the House seapower subcommittee on the problems that plague the Navy’s supply system. He will appear with Bates and Commodore James B. Whittaker, the Navy’s assistant commander for inventory and systems integrity. Pretty heady stuff for a 26-year-old sailor from Bakersfield.
Like many whistle blowers, Jackson has brought considerable attention upon himself, much of it controversial. His motives and his character have been scrutinized in the same manner as the truth of some of his allegations.
The recently discharged Jackson has been criticized by Navy officials for pursuing his allegations with an “evangelical zeal.”
“As a whistle blower, he was a zealot,” said one Navy officer in San Diego. “He thought he was a disciple of the Lord. He really tried to mix the two. He felt that what he was doing resulted from his religious calling.”
Jackson, who describes himself as a “born-again” Christian, said that during the congressional hearings he may demand an apology from the Navy over its “slandering” of his religious beliefs.
While saying he has nothing to gain from his role as a whistle blower, Jackson insists that the Navy “defrauded” him out of $25,000 from its beneficial suggestion program after he developed a training, auditing and reporting course for supply petty officers. The Navy had rewarded his suggestion, but only with $200.
Jackson has portrayed himself as “a straight-A student” in high school and a successful insurance salesman, but interviews and records indicate otherwise.
Jackson’s name first appeared in print on July 12 when Bates told a House government operations subcommittee that the whistle blower’s life was threatened because he had reported “fraud, kickbacks and a variety of supply schemes.”
Before he went to Bates, Jackson said, he twice requested but was denied permission to see Capt. Phillip R. Wood, the Kitty Hawk’s commanding officer. Jackson said the ship’s supply officers showed little interest when he pointed out discrepancies between inventories he conducted and supplies that were supposed to be on hand.
“I’d say: ‘Gentleman, what you are doing is illegal.’ It was a big joke to them,” he said.
After he sought to report the irregularities, Jackson said, one of the ship’s bookkeepers “threatened to break me into little pieces and throw me into the screws of the ship.” Jackson later told reporters that he received a second death threat.
In the past two months, Jackson has appeared on national television and his story has been told in Time and Newsweek magazines. Along with features on actress Ann Jillian and Bruce Springsteen, a recent issue of People magazine carried a full-page photo and profile story of Jackson.
As Jackson posed for television cameras to spread allegations of fraud and waste aboard the Kitty Hawk, the Navy conducted a 3 1/2-month internal investigation into his charges. The 12-inch-thick report is being reviewed by Navy officials in Washington and is expected to be released during Tuesday’s subcommittee hearing. Navy sources told The Times that the investigation did not uncover widespread examples of fraud, mismanagement, waste, kickbacks or bribes as alleged by Jackson.
But the report confirmed several of Jackson’s charges, including the dumping of materials, falsification of signatures on government documents, sloppy bookkeeping and improper purchases of personal items from the captain’s reserve account.
The investigation portrays Jackson as a “bitter” and “vindictive” sailor who wanted “to get” the captain of the ship for paying only $200 for his beneficial suggestion. According to the investigative report, other sailors said that Jackson offered $50 for information of any wrongdoing inside their supply divisions. Jackson flatly denied that he ever offered any money.
Jackson has described the Navy investigation as a “joke,” saying that from the moment he went public with his charges the Navy has tried to discredit him. He said he was never interviewed by Navy investigators concerning his allegations until he went to Bates.
D. Anthony Gaston, one of Jackson’s attorneys, said, “The Navy has gagged, harassed and criticized him. They’ve taken the position that this man is some sort of traitor.”
Jackson has his share of supporters who defend him as a reliable whistle blower whose meticulous record keeping and extraordinary ability to provide details such as dates, places and times have provided Congress with unusual insights into problems with the Navy’s supply system.
“I think he is well meaning,” said Otto Bos, an aide to Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.).
“Like a lot of people, he likes attention,” Bates said. “I can’t fault him for wanting to get his story out and have recognition for what he’s doing. You can always criticize the style or method of someone, but the hard facts are he’s got a story to tell that needs to be told. Thank God he had the courage and initiative to tell it.”
Robert William Jackson was one of eight children born and raised in Bakersfield by a self-employed petroleum engineer and his wife, who died of brain cancer in 1980. His father, Jim, recalled that as a young boy Robert Jackson was intelligent, but shy.
“Bobby was always a little quieter than the others,” Jim Jackson said. “His prime hope originally was to become a lawyer or something, but it didn’t work out.”
Robert Jackson attended Bakersfield High School for three years and belonged to the bowling club and forensics team. He was graduated from Highland High in Bakersfield in 1977. Jackson said he was a “straight-A student” and that his parents refused to sign papers for him to join the Navy because they wanted him to go to college. When he turned 18, Jackson signed his own papers and went into the Navy.
School records, however, show that Jackson never got an A during his three years at Bakersfield High and carried a below-C average. Later, Jackson said his grades improved considerably during his senior year at Highland High.
Jackson’s father, who served three years in the Navy, said he is proud of his son for exposing the Navy’s supply problems. “I’m all for it,” Jim Jackson said. “I know the static he’s taking in the Navy. Anytime you go and buck the system, you get static. It takes guts to do it.”
Robert Jackson left the Navy in 1980 to begin selling life and health insurance in Jacksonville, Fla. He first worked at Mutual of Omaha, where, Jackson said, he won every award for a first-year agent and took corporate training in marketing, public relations courses and liability insurance.
But Duane Shapcott, Jackson’s manager at Mutual of Omaha, said that Jackson had “an above average mentality for the business, but did an average job.”
Jackson left Mutual after less than a year to join Connecticut General. “The main reason he left us was that he wanted advance training faster than we like to schedule it for him,” Shapcott said. “He had a propensity to move on and grab on to something he wasn’t qualified for in our business.”
Jackson said he joined Connecticut General because he got bored with selling life insurance and wanted to establish himself in corporate and estate planning. An official at Connecticut General’s Jacksonville office refused to discuss Jackson’s tenure with the firm.
Similar disagreements surfaced recently between Jackson and the Navy over his role on the Kitty Hawk during the nearly two years he worked in the supply department. Jackson said he was the ship’s financial auditor in charge of balancing the books for 90 supply divisions. But Navy spokesman Tom Jurkowsky said that Jackson was not an expert on the Navy supply system.
“He was a good administrator who had good clerical skills. His job was to try to reconcile these handwritten memos that controlled the ship’s operational funds with computerized records,” Jurkowsky said. “He was not an auditor. That’s his own characterization. The Navy never considered him one.”
Jackson was assigned to the Kitty Hawk in September, 1983, shortly after he left the insurance business. He said he rejoined the Navy for a two-year hitch because a nasty marriage and divorce left him broke and deeply in debt to the IRS.
Jackson got married at age 18 while in the Navy. He and his former wife have a boy, Robert Jackson Jr., now 5.
Jackson, who was raised as a Catholic and was an altar boy, said it was after the breakup of his marriage that he accepted Jesus Christ into his life and became a “born-again” Christian.
“I have no blind faith in anything or anybody,” Jackson explained. “I started to read biblical interpretations of original Scriptures, study the Bible and so I became devout.”
Jackson said his religious beliefs created conflict during his second tour with the Navy when his supervisors occasionally refused to give him an hour off on Sundays to pray.
Navy officials have portrayed Jackson as an “evangelistic troublemaker” who made the sign of the cross in various storerooms and told the devil to get out. On other occasions, he reportedly told crew members, “With the help of God, we’ll clean up this mess in the Navy.”
Jackson, who was honorably discharged Aug. 30, said he considered himself an evangelist, but denied that his religious beliefs had anything to do with his decision to become a whistle blower.
“I was an evangelist,” Jackson said. “If somebody wanted to talk to the Lord, fine, I talk to the Lord all day long. Other people say I was an evangelistic freak . . . They thought it was strange for two people to pray. On a carrier you share a room with 200 other people. You try to do whatever you can do wherever you can.
“The Navy should have never attacked my Christianity. They never had the right. That’s a heckuva thing. I blow the whistle on the system and they attack my Christianity. What is this country all about?”
During Jackson’s weeks in the spotlight he appears to have acquired a grander vision of his role as a whistle blower. “I’m tired of playing games,” Jackson said. “I’m not going to Washington as a timid sheep into slaughter. I’m going as a lion. There are things I want answers to that I think the people of this country want answers to. I’ll embarrass the Navy when they talk about their investigation. I’m going to expose what I believe to be a cover-up.”
Jackson said he also has been contemplating calling for a national referendum to raise the national debt ceiling. He recognizes that to hold a national referendum, a constitutional amendment may be necessary. If so, he has considered calling for a constitutional convention to enact such a provision.
“If I were his lawyers, I would tell him to shut up,” said one congressional aide, who added that Jackson ought to let his documents do the talking.
However, Bates said he thinks Jackson will make a credible government witness who should impress the seapower subcommittee.
“He understands the books, he is meticulous in documenting his concerns and he basically comes over as a sincere, earnest young sailor who maybe is a little overzealous,” Bates said. “But when you get so frustrated with the system, you tend to become a little overzealous.”