The Wall Street Journal
June 5, 1996

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Arkansas Reform In Hands Of Huckabee, Starr


In a stunning reversal for the political machine that has dominated Arkansas for decades, events in recent weeks have shoved the one-party state to the brink of historic reform. The May 28 resignation announcement of Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, convicted of bank fraud with James and Susan McDougal, is only the most visible sign of the shifting of the tectonic power plates. A week earlier, primary voters pointedly rejected or forced into runoffs candidates linked to the ruling elite, for the first time in Arkansas history fielding a strong statewide slate of Republicans. Speculating that the GOP could displace the Democrats in "one-party rule," the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorialized, "It may take some getting used to. Like an earthquake."

Mike Huckabee is the young Republican lieutenant governor and Baptist preacher who will take the reins of state power when Mr. Tucker formally steps down. Mr. Huckabee said in an interview that he wants to be "a healer" for his state, but declined to discuss specific reforms before taking office. Yet in a sign perhaps of troubles ahead, Mr. Huckabee acknowledged he was "aware" of stories that state officials were shredding documents in anticipation of Gov. Tucker's departure. "Anyone in a state agency or any state officer that would do something probably illegal -- and certainly unethical -- would have to be looked into," Mr. Huckabee said.

Gov. Huckabee will have a lot to look into, but he'd better watch his back. A good early move would be to start cleaning up the cesspool that is Arkansas law enforcement. Above all, he needs to put his own people in control of the Arkansas State Police. In Arkansas, the state police function as a kind of gubernatorial Praetorian Guard. Pimping for then-Gov. Clinton, it appears, was the least of their sins.

Law enforcement officials say that the state police shut down cocaine probes into bond daddy Dan Lasater, chicken king Don Tyson and Roger Clinton before the investigations ran their course. There is abundant evidence that some members of the state police spent years undermining inquiries into alleged drug smuggling at Mena airfield, finally driving its own investigator, Russell Welch, out of a job. And in the controversial "train deaths" case, law enforcement officials seem to have thwarted investigations into apparent links between the murder of two teenagers, drugs, and a local prosecutor, Dan Harmon.

Mr. Harmon is under investigation for a second time by the state police and FBI for corruption. He was jailed Friday for assaulting Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Rodney Bowers, who tried to interview him about the probe. Mr. Bowers's injuries aren't serious, but the situation is painfully ironic. It's widely believed in Arkansas journalistic circles that Mr. Bowers has not been encouraged to write all he knows about the train deaths and Mena cases, while his newspaper's editorial page has expended much ink ridiculing stories on those subjects, particularly those by this writer.

On May 21 voters decided they'd had enough of Mr. Harmon, denying him a spot on the Democratic ticket in a run for sheriff of Saline County. The GOP slot was won by John Brown, a former detective who investigated the train deaths. Mr. Brown says if elected he will "fight public corruption in all forms" and pursue the case.

Voters also expressed their displeasure with Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Stodola of Little Rock, forcing him into a runoff for the Democratic nomination for Rep. Ray Thornton's congressional seat. If elected, Mr. Stodola will become the de facto head of a diminished but still dangerous political machine. A longtime Clinton ally, Mr. Stodola last week signaled that he is still willing to play bully boy for the power elite when he restated his intention to use his prosecutorial powers to bring state insurance fraud charges against key Whitewater witness David Hale.

The message in any such Hale prosecution would be that new Whitewater witnesses are on notice that the state still has the power to punish them. This is not news to some of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's witnesses, such as Judge Bill Watt, whose pension was revoked, or former Madison S&L officer Don Denton, who friends say is in danger of losing his job at Little Rock airport.

Of course retribution is not news to Mena investigator Russell Welch. Nor is it news to Mr. Welch's colleague, former IRS investigator Bill Duncan, whose career was destroyed because he pursued the truth in the Mena affair. Nor is it news to former local drug task force head Jean Duffey, who was run out of the state after investigating the train deaths and Mena. Nor of course is it news to the state troopers who came forward with stories of Bill Clinton's sexual escapades, or to state police investigator J.N. "Doc" DeLaughter, whose career went down the drain after he started looking into Don Tyson and Dan Lasater.

Gov. Huckabee no doubt will be cautious about his dealings with Mr. Starr, but the two likely will establish some kind of quiet symbiotic relationship. Mr. Starr already is far down the road of liberating Arkansas from corruption. Mr. Huckabee's Baptist roots should allow him to do no less. The new governor can be of enormous help by signaling that state employees cooperating with Mr. Starr will not suffer retribution; let the truth set them free. And while he's at it, Mr. Huckabee should indicate that he's serious about getting to the bottom of Mena and the train deaths. He could start by consulting Bill Duncan, Russell Welch, Jean Duffey, Doc DeLaughter, and maybe even Rodney Bowers, about whom he should name to head the state police.

Mr. Morrison is a Journal editorial page writer.

Reproduced with permission
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