In a private ceremony at the State Department Thursday, a Minnesota flight instructor was presented with a $5 million check for flagging suspicious behavior by Al-Qaida operative Zacarias Moussaoui, who was learning to fly a jumbo jet before the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
But two other former employees of the Pan American International Flight Academy who tipped the FBI that a terrorist might be in their midst were surprised to learn they weren't included in the award given to Clarence Prevost, who testified at Moussaoui's death penalty trial.
Tim Nelson, a former program manager at the school, and Hugh Sims, a former flight manager, were honored by a U.S. Senate resolution in 2005 for their bravery and heroism in alerting the FBI to Moussaoui's suspicious behavior. Nelson and Sims each called the FBI on Aug. 15, 2001.
But the $5 million reward went only to Prevost, 70.
He was handed a check during a ceremony attended by representatives of the FBI, State Department and Justice Department, said several government officials who declined to be identified.
In his testimony, Prevost recalled asking Alan McHale, the school's training director, whether the school should seek an FBI background check on Moussaoui.
Prevost never actually contacted the FBI, but government officials said he took other actions that assisted the bureau, which they said they couldn't discuss.
Nelson and Sims both said they have no idea how Prevost helped the FBI. Prevost couldn't be reached for comment.
"If Hugh and I hadn't called in to the FBI, they wouldn't have had a case. Clancy [Prevost] didn't do anything," Nelson said. "The role that he played and the one that he's projected through the years has been escalated. He's told the story so many times, it's gotten better and better with age," Nelson said after learning about the reward. "I just see this as a slap in the face. We risked our jobs and we worried about our families after 9/11."
Moussaoui was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2006 after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hijack planes and crash them into buildings. He later tried to withdraw the plea, but federal sentencing rules prohibited that.
Awards under the 23-year-old counterterrorism program are generally made in secret to protect the safety of those honored, and government officials declined to comment about Thursday's award. The program has paid more than $82 million to more than 50 people whose information helped to thwart attacks or led to the arrests and prosecutions of terrorists.
Questions about who deserves credit for helping federal agents arrest Moussaoui surfaced several years ago.
Prevost, a retired Northwest Airlines pilot who spent two days teaching Moussaoui, told a jury that the young French citizen of Moroccan descent was unlike any student he'd taught: He wanted to learn to fly a jumbo jet without ever soloing in a Cessna. Prevost said Moussaoui had paid the school $8,300, including $6,800 in hundred-dollar bills, and had behaved oddly.
But McHale, who said he was "totally stunned" by Thursday's award, said he has no recollection of Prevost urging him to call the FBI. However, he said, Nelson and Sims "were screaming to me" to do so.
Nelson and Sims said they phoned the bureau about an hour apart because they were convinced that the school wouldn't.
Nelson, who still lives in Minnesota, said he's writing a letter to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to express his outrage and ask for an investigation into the award. "Why did they do this in secret because $5 million is a lot of money to throw around. The public should be outraged that $5 million is going to a guy who testified. This is just insulting.''
Sims, of White Bear Lake, was interviewed by phone from in Fort Myers, Fla., where he lives for a portion of the year. He said he also was shocked to learn that Prevost was awarded $5 million and "I have no clue as to why,'' he said. "Maybe there's something there that he did that none of us know about.''
"I don't know that any of us deserve a reward,'' Sims said. If any reward was going to be given, Sims suggested that it probably should have been divided between the three men. He said he would give a chunk of any money sent his way to veterans who served in Iraq.
"I did my part and Tim did his part,'' Sims said. "And whatever Clancy did, God love him. ... I have no grudges against him. ... It doesn't seem fair but Tim Nelson and I know what happened."
But Sims said he won't waste time being angry about not getting any money. "I didn't have $5 million yesterday,' he said. "I'm 68 years old, the sun is going to come up tomorrow, I still can play golf. ... I have a great wife and a great family. My life is perfect."
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