Reed Irvine - Editor
|August B, 2000|
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
THIS REPORT IS A CONDENSED VERSION OF A VERY LONG ARTICLE ABOUT WHIT LaFON, Al Gore's maternal uncle, by Charles Thompson and Tony Hays. Thompson was a Navy officer during the Vietnam War, where he was with the First Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO) that served as gunfire spotters and artillery observers for all the services. Tony Hays recently won the Tennessee Press Association award for investigative reporting for his stories on drug trafficking. Thompson took up journalism after he finished his second tour in Vietnam. For most of his career he was a producer for "60 Minutes," working mainly with Mike Wallace. That is where he was in April 1989, when the No. 2 gun turret on the U.S.S. Iowa blew up. Charlie got a call from a gunner's mate on the Iowa, not long after the accident that whetted his interest in the case. Five months later, after Bob Zelnick of ABC News wrote a newspaper op-ed article suggesting that the Navy was trying to make a scapegoat of a sailor killed in the accident, Wallace told Charlie that he could do the story. "60 Minutes" ended up doing three segments about it. Last year, Charlie's excellent book on the Iowa disaster, A Glimpse of Hell, was published by Norton. He is now working on two other projects involving the Navy. He has some new information about the shootdown of the Iranian airbus by the U.S.S. Vincennes. He is also interested in TWA 800, and has filed an FOIA request with the Navy for a lot of detailed information about what ships they were deploying off Long Island the night of the crash and what ordnance was expended.
CHARLIE ASKED ME IF I COULD HOLD UP PUBLISHING THE WHIT LaFON ARTICLE BECAUSE he has just come across additional information that, if confirmed, would show Al Gore's involvement with his uncle is deeper than what he and Tony Hays have reported in this article. Unfortunately, we already had the story set in type and were behind schedule on getting it to the printer. We will report the additional information when it becomes available.
I HAVE JUST HAD A PHONE CONVERSATION WITH MARGE GROSS, WHOSE BROTHER WAS killed in the TWA 800 crash. Marge was at the NTSB board meeting on Aug. 22, the day I was thrown out for distributing the Eyewitness Alliance ad. She said she was upset by Chairman Jim Hall's attack on what he called a small group of people who keep saying that the plane was shot down by a missile, inflicting pain on the families of the victims. She was so angry that she left the auditorium and copied and distributed a statement by Tom Stalcup, the chairman of the Flight 800 Independent Research Organization (FIRO). Explaining who she was, she gave Stalcup's statement to the TV camera crews that were waiting in the lobby with nothing to do. The cameramen informed their reporters in the auditorium that they had a good interview opportunity, and before she knew it, reporters were everywhere.
JIM KALLSTROM HAPPENED TO BE IN THE LOBBY, TOGETHER WITH ROBERT FRANCIS, former vice chairman of the NTSB. The reporters brought Marge Gross together with them, with Francis in the middle. Marge took advantage of the opportunity to remind Kallstrom that she had been present when Serge Kovaleski, a reporter for The Washington Post, told Kallstrom that everyone knew that a missile downed the plane. She said Kallstrom's response was, "You're right, but if you quote me, I'll deny it." Kovaleski has denied the statement attributed to him, but on Aug. 22, Jim Kallstrom did not deny what Marge said. She said that with sweat pouring down the sides of his face, Kallstrom only grunted. She asked me, "If you were a reporter, wouldn't you pan back to Mr. Kallstrom and ask for his rebuttal? They never moved. They kept the camera on me. She (the reporter) didn't blink an eye. Nothing! I wondered what was going on. Were they trying to destroy me or make me look foolish, or cry in front of them, or what?"
THAT IS A VERY INTERESTING QUESTION. IF IT IS TRUE THAT KALLSTROM SAID TO THE Washington Post reporter, "You're right, but if you quote me, I'll deny it," why shouldn't that exact quote be reported? With at least one witness present to back him up, wouldn't the reporter have a hot story? When Kallstrom did not deny the truth of what Marge Gross said on camera, shouldn't that have triggered multiple questions from all those reporters who were there to report on the government's findings about the cause of the TWA 800 crash? That would have spoiled the NTSB's carefully scripted meeting, a meeting that would close down the investigation without finding any evidence of a spark and no reason to believe that even if they found a possible source for a spark that it could have caused an explosion. When journalists pass up such easy opportunities to expose serious lies by government officials, is it any wonder that they make absolutely no effort to expose such huge lies as the CIA video produced to discredit every single eyewitness who saw anything that could have been interpreted as being a missile? The NTSB reiterated that lie at its Aug. 22-23 board meeting.
WHEN JOURNALISTS ARE UNITED IN DEFENDING LIES, THOSE WHO ARE TRYING TO GET the truth to the public have a very hard time. This was demonstrated on C-SPAN on Aug. 25, with M. Stanton Evans discussing Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy on a program devoted to the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Evans is working on a book on McCarthy that will demolish some of the long-standing myths that have grown up around the man. The speech that is still cited today as evidence of McCarthy's recklessness was delivered in Wheeling, W. Va. on Feb. 9, 1950. The local paper reported that he said there were 205 card-carrying Communists in the State Department. In speeches on the next two days, he said the number was 57. This made national news and the difference between the numbers was played up as proof that he played fast and loose with the facts.
LAST FEBRUARY, STAN EVANS PARTICIPATED IN A PROGRAM ON SEN. McCARTHY sponsored by Accuracy in Academia that was aired on C-SPAN. Evans had said there was no recording of the Wheeling speech and no published record of exactly what McCarthy had said. A viewer in Wheeling phoned to tell him that there were still people in Wheeling who had heard that speech, Evans went to Wheeling to interview them. That is how he discovered Mrs. Ava Lou Ingersoll. She had written down the numbers McCarthy gave. Evans recorded her statement, and it was played on the air on C-SPAN on Aug. 25. Fifty years and 6 months after the controversial speech was delivered, the truth finally came out on C-SPAN. None of the other news networks reported it. Here are key excerpts from the Evans interview of Mrs. Ingersoll.
MRS. INGERSOLL: "IT WAS A LINCOLN DAY DINNER, AND WE THOUGHT HE WOULD SPEAK about Lincoln because they usually do, you know.... I had never heard of Sen. McCarthy before. He said that in 1946 the President's Loyalty Board investigated employees in the State Department. They declared that 284 of them because of their association with Communist activities were unfit to work in the State Department. He said that 79 were discharged, but this left 205 still on the State Department payroll. And this seemed to just infuriate him, because it was the President's Loyalty Board that had declared them unfit, and yet they (fired) only 79 of them. Then he went on to say that of the 205, 57 were found to be card-carrying members of the Communist Party. And, of course, you know, the next day the newspapers all over the country from coast to coast stated him as having said there were 205 Communists in the State Department instead of the 57.... When I heard the 57, I said I've got to write this down. I reached in my purse to get something, and there was a scrap of paper there, something that came in the telephone bill, and I borrowed a pen .... and I wrote down....of the 205, 57 were c.c., which meant card-carrying mem, which meant members of the CP, which meant of the Communist Party.
"I PUT THAT IN MY PURSE, AND I DIDN'T THINK ABOUT IT FOR MAYBE THREE MONTHS, and I went to my drawer to get a small purse and I found this scribbling. And I thought, ‘Well I'll be darned. I knew I was right.' And so I took it to other members of our club....They acted just the way they did after the speech. They didn't want to talk about it. They seemed frightened.... ‘You know we were told not to say anything.' I said, ‘Who told? Nobody told me not to say anything.' But these women were really frightened and wouldn't discuss it. Until this day, I don't know who shut them up..... I for years defended him, because I knew what he said. And everyone said, ‘No, it was 205, I know.' And the people that weren't even there would say that. They knew what they had read in the paper. But the papers were all wrong."
STAN EVANS POINTED OUT THAT A SENATE COMMITTEE CHAIRED BY SEN. GUY GILLETTE, a Democrat, ordered an investigation of McCarthy's Wheeling speech. Democratic Senators were charging that McCarthy had lied and committed perjury when he said he had 57 and not 205 names of card-carrying Communists in the State Department. The committee's investigators found that McCarthy was right. That was not what the committee wanted to hear, and the report was never made public. Evans found a copy at the University of Syracuse library among the papers left to the university by a member of the Gillette Committee. That ended the 50-year cover-up, but it has yet to be reported by the media as a correction of a very old and durable error.