Leader Blues

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Investigate clemencies

Every week, another two or three former aides to Mike Huckabee turn up to embroider on his lengthy record as governor of Arkansas, and they are not complimentary. None of their stories seems to have slowed Huckabee’s meteoric rise in the Republican presidential stakes, but they illuminate our history a little better.

First, an administrative assistant who worked with Huckabee on prison and parole matters politely put the lie to his account of the Wayne DuMond parole.

The governor, he acknowledged, did have letters and personal contacts with women who were raped by DuMond before he went to prison, and the governor did try to persuade state parole board members to grant the celebrated rapist immediate parole, contrary to Huckabee’s denials in all sorts of campaign venues.

Then a couple of former political advisers to the governor told about helping him set up a secret fund in Texas bankrolled mostly by tobacco giant R. J. Reynolds that was a source of supplemental income when he was lieutenant and then governor.

Huckabee claimed not to know that the tobacco company gave him so much money, and he could not recall a meeting with Reynolds officials at his Little Rock apartment where the deal was cut. Whatever, he said, the secret tobacco payments were not the reason that he sided with the cigarette industry often in his early years as lieutenant governor and governor.

Specifically, he said, it was not the reason that he opted for a huge tax on private nursing home patients instead of a cigarette tax in 2001 when the legislature handed him two bills with those options.

Over the weekend came two more accounts — one by the conservative magazine The National Review and the other by NBC News — of his clemency for a recidivist drunk driver at Van Buren that made the news in Arkansas several years ago.

Huckabee commuted the millionaire’s sentence soon after he went to prison so that he could go home immediately.

Huckabee explained at the time that the man was cured. Soon afterward, he was arrested on DWI charges again. Before the governor signed the commutation papers, the man’s wife cut checks for more than $10,000 to the state Republican Party.

The earlier episodes that were detailed by the governor’s former associates were merely fascinating. This one is deeply troubling and it needs investigation. We hope Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley and the United States attorney’s office take notice. It furnishes the federal district attorney’s office, which was battered by the corruption scandal in the Justice Department this year, a chance to demonstrate its independence.

NBC reported that a former Republican state official and fund-raiser had revealed that the wife of Eugene Fields of Van Buren had sent two checks for $5,000 each to the Republican Party in June and July 2003, shortly after the millionaire businessman lost an appeal of his fourth DWI conviction.

Soon after Fields began serving his sentence, Huckabee commuted his prison sentence to time served and he walked free.

Fields had been convicted of DWI in 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2001. The last one resulted in the mandatory prison sentence.

The author of the article in The National Review was David Sanders, a former assistant to Gov. Huckabee and now a columnist for the Stephens newspapers and a frequent commentator on public radio and television.

In 2000, around the time of Fields’ third DWI conviction, his business sent a $10,000 gift to the Arkansas Republican Party.

Sanders quoted a Republican Party official as saying that he had received a telephone call from Jason Brady, an aide to Huckabee, demanding that the $10,000 be transferred from the party to Huckabee’s Victory 2000 fund, which the governor personally controlled.

Brady insisted that the $10,000 from Fields was “the governor’s deal” and that the money was intended for his political account and not the party’s.

Party officials who got the two big checks in 2003 from Fields’ wife thought it was strange since it was not the political season and people normally do not settle money on political funds except when an election is approaching.

At the time of Huckabee’s commutation of Fields’ sentence, a parole board spokesperson said, “I’ve never seen anything like this happen before.” The usual reasons for clemency were not met. Those serving sentences for multiple DWI convictions are ordinarily not freed until they have served a substantial part of their sentences.

Huckabee shortened the sentences of six other men convicted of repeated DWI offenses, but each served much longer. Fields did have support from a Baptist preacher, an element that appeared often in Huckabee’s commutations and pardons.

There is at least the appearance of quid pro quo in the political gifts and the subsequent commutation. That would be a serious felony under Arkansas and federal law.

But it may be nothing more than a coincidence and an unfortunate appearance. Either way, it needs to be settled, and the only way to do that is for the prosecuting agencies to conduct an impartial investigation, away from the political limelight.