David Duke Guilty of Corruption, Continues Cons

The guilty plea of white supremacist David Duke for corruption is only the latest episode in the life of a voracious con man

Ripping Off the Klan
As the 1970s drew to a close, with growing numbers of followers deserting his Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Duke was accused by several Klan officials of stealing his organization's money. "Duke is nothing but a con artist," Jack Gregory, Duke's Florida state leader, told the Clearwater (Fla.) Sun after his boss allegedly refused to turn over proceeds from a series of 1979 Klan rallies to the Knights.

"Our members were pouring in money to the organization, and we never saw any of it. When I asked Duke where our money was going, I was thrown out of the Klan," Gregory said. "Yeah, he tells everyone he doesn't make anything from the Klan — that he's doing it for the cause. But that's the biggest lie there is."

Another Klan official under Duke, Jerry Dutton, told reporters that Duke had used Klan funds to purchase and refurbish his home in Metairie, La. Duke later justified the repairs by saying most of his home was used by the Klan.

"Duke was all about money," Clary said. "This was no secret in the Klan. He barraged us with letters, wanting donations constantly to help finance this or that."

At one event, Tyler Bridges reported, Duke lost his temper when a follower neglected to bring sign-up sheets to a well-attended anti-busing speech he gave in Boston. "Do you know how much money you cost us?" Duke roared.

In 1979, after his first, abortive run for president (as a Democrat) and a series of highly publicized violent Klan incidents, Duke quietly incorporated the nonprofit National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP) in an attempt to leave the baggage of the Klan behind. But before he made it public, he contacted Bill Wilkinson, a former Duke underling who now headed a rival Klan group.

Duke invited Wilkinson to a remote Alabama farmhouse where he offered to sell for $35,000 his secret membership list — a cardinal offense for a Klan leader who had promised to keep his members' names secret at all costs. Wilkinson had feigned interest, but secretly invited two reporters to witness the transaction.

Duke and his disciple, Don Black, were caught on video- and audiotape as they handed a brown paper bag filled with index cards with his members' names to Wilkinson.

Three days later, after Duke's sellout had received national publicity, he publicly announced the formation of the NAAWP, attacking Wilkinson as he did so. He said he was trying to get away from "the Hollywood image" of the Klan.

Nazi With a Nose Job
As he led the NAAWP through the 1980s, Duke was known as a penny-pincher who would ask even complete strangers for money — in restaurants, among other places, to pay for his meal tickets.

But Tyler Bridges, who was then an investigative reporter for The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune newspaper, revealed in 1989 that Duke secretly owned two companies. The first, Americana Books, sold neo-Nazi books from his legislative office, in the basement of his home. The second, Business Consultant & Enterprises, was set up by Duke in 1978. Tax returns filed by the NAAWP showed that it had paid BC&E $119,625 from 1983 to 1988 for "mailing list maintenance."

Duke's short-lived 1979-1980 campaign for president, Bridges revealed, also had paid BC&E $19,900 to rent space in Duke's home. "In sum," Bridges writes in his book, "BC&E — i.e., Duke — from 1983 to 1988 [when Duke ran for president on the far-right Populist Party ticket] received $141,000 from the NAAWP and Duke's [two] presidential campaigns." The arrangement was apparently legal.

In 1987, Duke and Don Black traveled to Forsyth County, Ga., to take advantage of simmering racial tension between blacks and the Klan. After they were arrested and charged with reckless conduct during a shouting match with a black man, Duke set up a defense fund for himself that had an almost identical name to another fund set up to aid 62 white supremacists who'd been arrested earlier.

After raising at least $8,000 from backers who mistakenly believed they were helping the 62 men arrested with Duke and Black, Duke ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge, Bridges wrote. He was fined a grand total of $55.

It was in the late 1980s that Duke began a series of more serious campaigns for political office. He had enough political savvy to understand that parading around with a swastika armband, as he had done during his college days, would be counterproductive. The challenge was how to be a Nazi without being obvious about it. So he toned down the vitriol and avoided the crudest rhetoric.

He also dyed his hair blond and visited a plastic surgeon to reduce the size of his nose. A chin implant altered his profile and chemical peels removed bags and wrinkles around his eyes.

Duke's surgically enhanced image was a metaphor for the ideological face-lift he underwent in these years in an effort to convince people that he had abandoned the fanatical ideas of his youth. His camouflaged racism, which recast prejudice as pluralistic pride, resonated favorably among many disenchanted white voters who could recognize extremism when clothed in Nazi or Klan regalia, but not when it hid behind the slippery vocabulary that mainstream conservatives employed to attack affirmative action, welfare, immigration, and other hot-button issues.

Duke's 1988 Populist Party presidential campaign was a miserable failure, with him taking just 48,267 votes — 0.05% of the total. But he was not discouraged. And in 1989, masquerading as a born-again Republican, Duke ran for a seat in the Louisiana state legislature and narrowly beat a complacent incumbent.

Up to then, save a few part-time gigs, a nose job was the only job that Duke had ever had.