Accuracy in Media

Federal and Tennessee state law enforcement officials are said to be investigating Vice President Al Gore’s uncle, Whit LaFon. They think he may be involved in a narcotics distribution and money-laundering scheme in southwest Tennessee that involves powder and crack cocaine and thousands of dollars of profits. The investigation is said to involve the FBI, the Inspector General’s office at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Tennessee’s 24th Judicial District Task Force and the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

According to state and local officers, a seaplane, allegedly containing narcotics, frequently lands on the water in southern Decatur County, Tenn., near Swallow Bluff Island on the Tennessee River. The drugs are said to be transferred to four-wheelers via motorboats. The four-wheelers then scoot out from LaFon’s compound and haul the drugs to delivery points. Federal law enforcement officials have confirmed both the investigation and its targets ? retired judge Whit LaFon and Chancery Judge Ron Harmon, a Gore supporter.

Presidential relatives have historically been the focus of media attention. President Lincoln suffered enormous bad press over his Southern-born wife, Mary Todd Lincoln’s, rebel sympathies and outrageous spending habits, habits that prompted her to play fast and loose with the White House accounts and payroll. Billy Carter’s public drunkenness and associations with such questionable rogues as Mohammar Qaddafi brought his brother Jimmy numerous public relations headaches. Roger Clinton’s drug arrest and self-professed addiction have called into question President Clinton’s own denials of drug use.

A Respected Adviser

Yet, in covering what has been one of the most powerful vice-presidencies in American history, the media have overlooked some of Gore’s Tennessee roots and especially his uncle Whit LaFon, a man who by Gore’s own admission has exerted tremendous influence at critical points in his life. LaFon, now 81, brother of Al’s mother, Pauline LaFon Gore, was first a state prosecutor and then a judge for many years. LaFon claims that he played an important role in helping convince young Al Gore in 1970 that he should enlist in the Army and serve in Vietnam. According to LaFon, Gore and his family have been frequent visitors to his Swallow Bluff property. Gore continues to seek out LaFon’s counsel and advice; he recently appointed his uncle to the national steering committee of Veterans for Gore.

As Al Gore vies for the presidency, and as the FBI develops its case, Whit LaFon deserves much closer scrutiny. In times past, LaFon, a cousin of former governor Ned McWherter, was part of the Murray political machine in west Tennessee. Composed of Congressman Tom Murray, his brother David, who was the state prosecutor in Jackson, Tennessee for 41 years, and LaFon, the trio of power brokers were said to control the western third of the state. “They had a hammerlock on everything,” said O.H. “Shorty” Freeland, former patronage chief under Governor Ray Blanton. “Nothing went on that they didn’t control.”

Gun-toting Guards

The FBI probe centers on LaFon’s remote, rustic cabin, situated high on a bluff overlooking the river. It’s the last and most secluded cabin of a string of four on a dead-end road, and the only one equipped with a metal dock and staircase on the sheer-faced rock bluff. One early attempt by a reporter to interview LaFon resulted in a grizzled, bearded guard loosing a 30-round magazine in the air from what appeared to be a Hechler and Koch MP-5 sub-machine gun, the type of weapon shoved in the face of Donato Dalrymple as he held the terrified six-year-old Elian Gonzalez.

In a subsequent interview, LaFon, a frail, white-haired man, in his fortress compound on the Tennessee River, made numerous statements and then attempted to place them off the record. Asked whether he was involved in the narcotics trade, he became visibly angry. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. His face reddened and he doubled over, clutching the front of his shirt. Later, he insisted, “I never had anything to do with drugs in my life.” But local residents have reported sightings of night-time seaplane landings in front of LaFon’s cabin for more than a decade. Organized surveillance by law enforcement did not begin till this year.

At a January meeting of local and federal lawmen, two FBI agents named LaFon and another individual as “possible protectors” for the cocaine distributors and money laundering scam. Due to the political sensitivity of the case, federal agents were using local lawmen, agents of the 24th Judicial District Drug Task force, a multi-county organization, to obtain documents and data that didn’t require federal search warrants.

Suspicious Activities

For nearly five years two lawmen have kept their eyes on some highly suspicious activity involving a seaplane and a boat on the river below LaFon’s cabin. “They come in on Friday nights, between about 7 and 9,” said one officer. “The boat will be waiting at the base of the bluff. The plane comes in without lights. It touches down and the boat goes out. A couple of minutes later, you hear the 4-wheelers. The whole thing, from the plane’s appearance to the 4-wheelers takes fifteen minutes max. The last report I had of a plane coming in was about three to four months ago, April 2000.”

In May the FBI told the officers that it would be dispatching an aircraft from a location in Virginia for detailed mapping and surveillance of the area. A federal official familiar with the investigation would only say, “I can’t confirm or deny it happened (the flight), but if it did, the plane was one of ours flying out of Quantico, Virginia,” where the FBI’s academy is located. Senior FBI officials confirmed the probe, the latest of events that have cast a cloud of suspicion over LaFon. According to a senior federal prosecutor, in the 1970s, when LaFon was a state prosecutor, and in the 1980s, when he was a judge, federal authorities investigated him for allegedly taking bribes and being involved in criminal enterprises when he was a public official, but no charges were ever filed.

Racist Remarks And Deeds

What is more damaging these days than unproven charges of illegal activities involving money while in office (something Al Gore has also experienced) is proven charges of racism. LaFon routinely peppers his conversations with the “N” word. During a 1991 sentencing hearing before Judge LaFon for an African-American convicted of rape, the defense attorney introduced as a character witness a 75-year-old white man who said he had rented a house to the defendant, had frequently visited him there and over the years and had become a friend.

According to the transcript, barely minutes into the witness’ testimony, LaFon chastised the defense attorney for having brought the white character witness into the court. “Listen,” he told defense attorney Betty Thomas Moore, herself an African-American. “I’ve lived here not as long as him (the witness) but I’ve been in this county 60 years and I know the situation how it is, that most black people don’t visit in white people’s homes socially and vice versa.”

Moore, now an elected state judge in Memphis, said that she immediately objected and LaFon called a brief recess, during which Moore advised LaFon that she intended to file a complaint against him. He responded by throwing her out of his office and directing the court reporter not to release a copy of the transcript of the sentencing proceedings, an action quickly overruled by the chief judge.

Mrs. Marcus Reaves, then the public defender in Jackson, Tennessee, and an attorney who worked with LaFon on a daily basis, said bluntly, “There are two kinds of racists: racists and overt racists. LaFon is an overt racist.” Mrs. Reaves is black.

Getting Away With Manslaughter

LaFon’s membership in Tennessee’s power elite apparently allowed him to escape punishment for accidentally killing an elderly white woman. On March 3, 1989, a pickup truck driven by Whit LaFon struck 91-year-old Beulah Mae Holmes as she stood by her mail box on a rural Henderson County, Tenn. road with such force that her head went flying in one direction and the rest of her frail body in another. LaFon’s vehicle then veered into the oncoming traffic, colliding with an oncoming car. The case file soon disappeared and key parts are still missing today. However, documents from several official sources reveal these violations of procedure that point to a cover-up.

  1. A full toxicological screening, mandated by law in fatal accidents, requires 20 milliliters of blood and 40 milliliters of urine. Tennessee Highway Patrolman Mark Stanford, who worked the wreck, requested the appropriate samples, but only 10 milliliters of blood and no urine were delivered to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) lab for testing. Test results, labeled by the lab as incomplete due to an “insufficient” sample, reported LaFon’s blood alcohol level as “negative,” an ambiguous term that can mean no alcohol was present or the level was below the legal limits. No testing was conducted for drugs despite state law.

  2. Witnesses have said that LaFon appeared to be staggering, and that his vehicle was moving at an excessive speed, something not mentioned in the official accident report. A former Henderson County law enforcement official told us that beer cans had been removed from LaFon’s truck by one or more of the officers responding to the accident. A state trooper says that it had been widely reported within his agency at the time that LaFon had been “under the influence” of a drug or alcohol or both. “We all knew that Mark [Stanford} didn’t work it like it was supposed to be done,” he said.

A Highway Menace

Stanford’s top boss at that time was Larry Wallace, then the uniformed head of the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Wallace was known for helping get politicians out of trouble. He was a political supporter of Gore’s, and later became director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the statewide police force. According to Robert Lawson, then Tennessee’s Public Safety Commissioner and Wallace’s supervisor, “there wasn’t a celebrity case that Wallace didn’t become involved in.”

According to his driving record LaFon was a menace on the highway. He was culpable in three accidents, including a hit-and-run involving another judge before killing Mrs. Holmes. Since then he has been involved in five more collisions.

Gore Mum On Serious Questions

In response to written and oral requests to discuss his relationship with LaFon and other Tennessee supporters, Gore’s office said that he would be unavailable for an interview. As Gore basks in the glow of the Sierra Club’s endorsement, the media have ignored an environmental controversy involv-ing Whit LaFon and a Tennessee River island with ancient Indian burial mounds. The 69-acre island lies just below LaFon’s cabin on Swallow Bluff. LaFon bought the island in 1967 for $1. He occasionally farmed it and raised a herd of goats there. LaFon told developer Larry Melton that the island was once a favorite playground for Al Gore’s children.

Tennessee State Archaeologist Nick Fielder says there are two small burial mounds and one large temple mound plus the remnants of an 800-year old Indian village on the island. It is designated as a historic site under the National Historical Preservation Act, but LaFon developed a plan for a 21-unit luxury development, including a private airstrip, on the island. LaFon and the R.H. Hickman agency of Jackson, Tenn. started shopping the island to area realtors. Crunk Realty of Savannah, Tenn. passed because they knew that the TVA and the U.S. Corps of Engineers have strict erosion control guidelines that spelled trouble for LaFon’s development plan. There was also the problem of the legally protected Indian mounds. A Crunk official said, “We just didn’t see any way to overcome all that.”

LaFon sold the island and his plan to a development company called Blankenship-Melton. Larry Melton, a partner in the firm, claims the deal was based on assurances that LaFon would “use his political connections to cut through the environmental red tape.” Melton said, “I was sitting there when Hickman told Blankenship that LaFon would use his political connections to cut through the red tape, to take care of the TVA and the state on the environmental stuff.” As they voiced concerns about the state and federal agencies, LaFon said, according to Melton, that they shouldn’t worry, asking, “Don’t you know who my nephew is?”

The Gore connection was spelled out in a memo written by Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation official Jack Wade, about a phone conversation with Larry Mel-ton. Wade wrote, “He also said that Al Gore’s kids were playing along the river bank while he met with Whit LaFon and Al Gore. He’s claiming that it was their idea and that they orchestrated the sale of the Swallow Bluff Island and the project.”

The Environmental Nightmare

Blankenship-Melton bought the island in March 1999 and began construction around July 1. On July 8, TVA staff observed crews digging on the island and informed them a permit was needed. No permit was obtained and TVA reminded them of it on July 14. Two weeks later, TVA ordered that all work be halted until the permit was approved. The developers were told that disturbing the burial sites would be a criminal offense. The state found that parts of the banks had been stripped of vegetation and artifacts. On Aug. 16, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a “cease and desist” order and called for stabilizing the shoreline, but on Nov. 4 no visible vegetation was left on the banks, the erosion had not been stopped, and work was continuing.

According to state archaeologist Nick Fielder, the construction crews had sloped the bank at a 45 degree angle, sending erosion spiraling out of control. Soil and village material was slipping off into the river, and nearly half of the great temple mound had fallen into the water. In total disregard of the regulations, parts of the Indian mounds were being bulldozed into the Tennessee River.

The state scheduled a “show cause” hearing on December 8, 1999,but no one from Blankenship-Melton appeared. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) officials finally contacted Walden Blankenship and arranged for an on-site meeting. It never happened. On January 18, 2000, officials discovered that the burial mounds had been dug into with shovels. At that point, on February 2, TDEC Commissioner Milton Hamilton issued an order, demanding that construction be halted and erosion control measures put in place, slapping the developers with $234,000 in fines and damages. But even that failed to bring the company into line.

Buyers Blame LaFon And Gore

Larry Melton offered a reason for their noncompliance in his February 22 phone conversation with Jack Wade of TDEC. Wade wrote a memo about this call, saying: “He is upset that Judge LaFon is back watering and claiming no connection with the project,” referring to LaFon’s earlier promises to use Al Gore to take care of problems with the TVA and the Corps of Engineers. A month later, Walden Blankenship and Larry Melton issued statements blaming those two agencies with creating the erosion problem.

Melton told us that LaFon had repeatedly used Gore’s name as the avenue to “make the environmental problems go away.” “That’s why we bought the property,” Melton said. “The development had already been advertised. Gore was supposed to handle the red tape.” Wade was even more emphatic, telling us, “I’ve worked with these guys before, and when he (Melton) said that he met with Gore and LaFon, that the development was their idea, and that the Gore kids were running around on the river bank as they talked, I believed him. He sounded sincere.” The state official also noted that in previous work with Blankenship-Melton, when problems were discovered, “we’d just send a notice of violation and they would take action. But this time was different. They acted as if they had protection.”

R.H. Hickman, owner of R.H. Hickman Realty, denies that he was involved in any such way. He said “One of my agents, Jerry Norwood, handled it for Judge LaFon, and we simply listed it and fielded offers. It was just a regular real estate transaction.” Attempts to contact Norwood were unsuccessful.

“This Is For Gore’s Children”

“They just flew in the face of reason,” said Leaf Myczack, Tennessee head of the environmental group, “Office of the Riverkeeper,” about what the developers did to Swallow Bluff Island. Myczack’s group has filed an injunction against the State of Tennessee in an attempt to make them collect the fines from Blankenship-Melton. “This is such a blatant case that we picked it to make a stand on,” said Myczack.

Send the enclosed cards or your own cards or letters to Wes Pruden, Editor-in-Chief, The Washington Times, James Kallstrom, Sr. Vice President, MBNA America, 1100 N. King St., Wilmington, DE 19884 and an editor of your choice.

According to two state officials, Melton told them that during the time the grading of the island was underway, “You don’t understand; this is for Al Gore. This is for Gore’s children.” A look at the sale of the property also supports a continuing LaFon and possible Gore interest in the development. LaFon sold the island for $100,000, half the appraised value of $200,000, causing some realtors to speculate that LaFon might have maintained a financial interest in the project. Additionally, according to Melton, it was a cash transaction, no loans, no mortgages, and no public paperwork. And only Gore’s influence could make the venture profitable.

Melton, who appeared before the state water quality board at a June 28 hearing, continues to publicly maintain that LaFon reneged on his end of the deal. According to Melton, LaFon cut the deal with Walden Blankenship, assuring Blankenship of Gore’s support. Blankenship, who attended the state hearing, disappeared during a break, perplexing everyone at the meeting. Repeated efforts to reach Blankenship have been unsuccessful. At Blankenship-Melton’s Lexington office, located in a strip mall along a busy highway, the electric meter has been pulled and newspapers cover the glass front and door. The telephones have been disconnected. There was no forwarding address. Judge LaFon, who continues to play an active role in Gore’s fundraising, denies any connection with the project after he sold the property.

On July 5, the water quality board confirmed Commissioner Hamilton’s earlier ruling. Melton, through his attorney, Howard Douglass of Lexington, Tennessee, has indicated that he will appeal the decision. And Swallow Bluff Island, where Al Gore and his children have played among the Indian mounds for more than three decades, lies stripped naked, rapidly disappearing into the river.

According to archaeologist Nick Fielder considerable damage has already occurred. “But, if they had been allowedto continue with their plans, they would have completely destroyed it as an archaeological site,” he asserts. Fielder says that the division of archaeology will now pursue the criminal statute covering desecration of human graves against Blankenship-Melton or whoever illegally opened the graves. “That’s the next logical step,” he said.

With the dissolution of the Blankenship-Melton company, and with Melton and LaFon refusing to take responsibility for the damage, local observers wonder whether the taxpayers will ultimately pay to preserve whatever is left of the island. As Gore raises environmental problems in Texas to attack Bush, the media ignore what his uncle has wrought in Tennessee.

NTSB EJECTS REED IRVINE

Reed Irvine was bodily carried out of the National Transportation Safety Board building in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 22, just before the board began its two-day public meeting to explain the crash of TWA Flight 800. For about 20 minutes Irvine had been handing out copies of the TWA 800 Eyewitness Alliance ad that ran in the Washington Times that day , when a security guard told him to stop. Standing in the lobby of the NTSB Building, Irvine said he was in a public place where a public meeting was being held exercising his right of freedom of speech. The ad protested the NTSB’s refusal to hear from any eyewitnesses about the cause of the crash.

The guard retreated but soon returned with another guard. He warned Irvine that he would be forcibly removed if he didn’t follow his orders. Irvine, who will be 78 in September, said he would not surrender his right of freedom of speech and that they would have to carry him out. The two burly guards grabbed him, and he sank to the floor. With six TV cameras focused on him, the guards picked him up and carried him out of the building, with the camera crews taping it all.

Back on his feet, Irvine took advantage of the six TV cameras facing him, explaining to whatever audience they might reach what the ad said and why the NTSB did not want people to see it. He told how the government had tried to discredit every one of the hundreds of people who saw a missile shoot down the plane. They had the CIA make a video claiming that no one had seen anything but the noseless plane, trailing burning fuel, climbing 3000 feet like a rocket. This was an insult to 260 eyewitnesses who told the FBI they saw anything like a streak of light and an explosion. ABC’s evening news show reported this, showing the ad, Irvine’s ejection and some of his remarks. It was reported on the Internet and on talk radio, but the Washington Times, whose ad gave rise to it all, said nothing about the incident or the cry of the eyewitnesses that their story be told.

What You Can Do

Send the enclosed cards or your own cards or letters to Wes Pruden, Editor-in-Chief, The Washington Times, James Kallstrom, Sr. Vice President, MBNA America, 1100 N. King St., Wilmington, DE 19884 and an editor of your choice.



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