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
By Martin A. Lee
It was the beginning of David Duke's heyday, the period when he would come to the attention of millions of people worldwide as he ran a series of high-profile political campaigns.
In late 1989, just months after winning his state campaign, he announced his candidacy in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. Over the course of the next year, he would raise a remarkable $2.4 million, part of it through a political advertisement that asked supporters to call a fee-charging 900 number.
In the end, he won 607,391 votes, or almost 60% of the white vote, but lost the primary. Duke regrouped almost immediately, running for Louisiana governor against Edwin Edwards in a campaign marked by one of the most remarkable bumper stickers in political history: "Vote for the Crook. It's Important," devised by anti-Duke forces urging a vote for Edwards.
Running in a crowded field, Duke, came within two percentage points of Edwards, forcing him into a run-off. In the run-off, Duke captured 671,009 votes, but lost to Edwards by 22 percentage points.
During the gubernatorial campaign, Duke held rally after rally, passing large plastic buckets through the crowds to raise cash — a method of fund-raising that is illegal under Louisiana law, which requires that officials issue cash receipts and keep records of donations. After a lengthy investigation, Duke was fined $1,111.
Next, Duke announced with great fanfare that he would seek the Republican nomination for president of the United States in 1992. But his campaign fizzled as most potential supporters backed right-wing commentator Patrick Buchanan, who espoused many of the same positions as Duke without carrying his baggage.
Of course, Duke never stood a chance, but that wasn't the point — he came out ahead no matter how he fared at the ballot box. According to Bridges' book, Duke told an assistant that by running for president he hoped to double the size of his computerized mailing list, which by now included 125,000 names. The list would be the source of future income.
Over the years, Duke would run for political office no less than 10 times. After a while, the spectacle of Duke as a perennial candidate — a man who seemed more interested in campaigning, and living off his campaigns, than in actually winning — started to wear thin on voters. But he still wielded considerable influence in Louisiana politics. In some cases, merely dipping his toe into a political campaign gave him leverage and bargaining power with other candidates.
After briefly entering the Louisiana governor's race in 1995, Duke dropped out and endorsed Mike Foster, a candidate who would go on to win the election. Duke's endorsement may well have given the edge to Foster, who had cut a back-room deal with the former imperial wizard, ostensibly to rent his mailing list for some $152,000.
One Duke aide, Kenny Knight, told Talk magazine that he had met Foster secretly to work out details of the deal. Knight claimed that Foster agreed to Duke's three conditions: to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party; to make his first act as governor the abolition of the state affirmative action program; and to never attack Duke. Knight said that Foster agreed to all three conditions.
For his part, Foster did switch parties when he announced his candidacy, and then went on to eliminate the affirmative action program shortly after taking office.
Foster, who never used the list during his 1995 campaign, had attempted to hide his payment to Duke, routing it through intermediaries. After it was finally disclosed in 1999, the state Board of Ethics fined Foster $20,000 for failing to disclose the deal.
Duke, meanwhile, was confronted by federal agents who asked him why he had failed to pay taxes on the income. Duke claimed his accountant had made a mistake, and hurriedly paid up his long-overdue taxes and penalties.
The Noose Tightens
The high price of the mailing list — newspapers pointed out that it sold for much more than such lists normally do — raised suspicions about what it was that Foster had actually bought. Some critics suggested Duke was being paid off to stay out of the race.
In any event, a federal grand jury looking into Duke's finances queried him two times in 1999 about the mailing list he had sold to Foster. Instead of answering, Duke took the Fifth Amendment.
Duke, realizing he was a target, was worried. He confided to Lori Eden, his girlfriend at the time, that he had lost at least $50,000 at the gaming tables. "I would ask him if he wanted to go to the casino," Eden told the Intelligence Report, "and he would say, 'No, I can't, because the FBI may see me, and they're on me.'
"He knew way ahead of time that he was going to get in trouble. He made a comment to me once, 'I do love you, but I'm going to jail.' He also tried to hint that he wouldn't be around. What he meant was that he was going to Russia," added Eden, who at the time was a 33-year-old swimsuit and lingerie model with her own adult Web site. "He knew they were coming after him. So he made sure to get the hell out of here before they actually picked him up to question him."
Eden, who would break up with Duke when he left for Russia, said that at one point in the relationship she had a pregnancy scare. Duke, a self-described "pro-lifer" who has railed publicly against abortion for whites for years, suggested that they travel to Paris to get her the abortion pill that was then illegal in America. "He said, I know, I've been through this before,'" she recounted. "He also said that it would kill him politically."
Investigators found a clear pattern in Duke's life. "All the girlfriends who were interviewed," the law enforcement source related, "said that Duke would sleep late every day, check the mail, take the money out of the mail, play golf, go to the health club and work out, and then go gambling in the evenings with complimentary limousines from the casino. It's not bad work, if you can get it."
It was during the 1990s, specifically between 1993 and 1999, that Duke was engaged in a long-running rip-off of his followers. FBI agents reported that Duke and his colleagues cooked up a series of false excuses for beseeching the faithful for ever more funds.
In one letter, for instance, he claimed he was facing financial ruin and the loss of his home. In fact, he sold his Metairie home at a profit shortly after that letter and bought a larger residence in Mandeville, La. His staff "would laugh at the often untruthful excuses Duke concocted," an FBI affidavit said.
"The mailings were predicated on various lamentations by Mr. Duke that he was in dire straits, when in fact our evidence indicated to the contrary," U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who oversaw the Duke case, told the Intelligence Report.
Some of the proceeds from these bogus direct mail appeals were deposited in a bank account that was under the name of an ex-girlfriend, but controlled by Duke, who maintained "in excess of 30 credit cards," according to the FBI. During just one 16-month period, Duke collected $230,000 in small checks from his supporters.
Duke was simultaneously undergoing something of a political metamorphosis — or, more accurately, a dropping of the mask. Since leaving the Klan, he had worked endlessly to put his Klan and especially his neo-Nazi past behind him. euro But in 1998, he self-published his autobiography, a tedious, 700-page tome he entitled My Awakening. The book, which Duke enthusiastically predicted would "change the course of history," revealed its author to be an unrepentant neo-Nazi true believer.
This did not preclude Duke from starting in early 2000 the National Organization for European American Rights (NOFEAR), which purported to be a group devoted to pursuing "civil rights" for whites, not to hating anyone. The next year, after a sporting goods company sued Duke over the use of its name, NOFEAR would be renamed the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO).
On Nov. 16, 2000, a dozen federal agents raided Duke's two-story home in Mandeville and carted away 22 boxes of papers, computer discs, credit card records and other documents.
Roy Armstrong, his long-time bodyguard and chauffeur, was there during the search and termed it a mere "fishing expedition." But Duke wasn't about to be reeled in — he was in Russia on his fourth visit, and he would not return to the United States until reaching a plea agreement in December 2002.
From a safe distance, Duke insisted on his innocence. "Make no mistake about it," he would write in a NOFEAR newsletter, "this probe is nothing more than a political assassination on the part of government officials who are seeking to silence my voice on our European heritage and rights." In the meantime, he said, he was moving to Moscow "to struggle against people of other colors and Jews."
It is clear that Duke understood perfectly that he was in trouble back home. That's why he spent the next two years traveling in Russia and throughout Europe (see The Wandering Jew-Hater), giving speeches and hobnobbing with other extremists.
Overall, he sought to give the impression that he was devoted to building a transnational movement. The reality, however, was that Duke spent most of his time selling his books, meeting privately with prominent rightists, and giving talks.
By late 2002, Duke's attorney was negotiating a plea agreement for his client, who had grown tired of being a nationalist without a nation. When news of the plea became public, Vince Breeding, national director of EURO, said Duke was pleading because he would surely lose in court at the hands of a mostly black jury. EURO communiqués painted the group's founder as "a living martyr for our cause."
Letten, the U.S. attorney, scoffed at the notion put out by Breeding and others that Duke was being persecuted for his views. "David Duke was investigated and prosecuted for conduct that he committed in violation of federal law, not as a result of his philosophy, however reprehensible that might be for most of us. The evidence militated towards prosecuting this. It had nothing to do with Duke's views."
On Dec. 14, Duke pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud — raising money under false pretenses that was later spent on personal investments or lost at the craps tables in three states — and another of making false statements on his tax return by vastly understating his 1998 income.
Under terms of the plea agreement, signed by Duke, his lawyer and Assistant U.S. Attorney Carter Guice, he is expected to be sentenced to 15 months in federal prison on March 12, 2003. That falls at the low end of the 15-24 months suggested by sentencing guidelines.
Duke may emerge from prison again fairly soon. But he will be disqualified from running for public office in Louisiana for life, blocking off a rich field for future fundraising. At the same time, he is almost certain to be seen in a jaded way by former supporters, even though many now are protesting his innocence.
Through it all, Duke has remained unrepentant. "I guess I'm more an elder statesmen now, rather than a young Turk activist," Duke said in an interview. "My role has evolved more into a researcher, a writer, a philosopher, an adviser to the movement. I think I can offer a lot of advice to younger people coming up."
Be that as it may, Duke is still trying to spin events to cast himself in the increasingly unlikely role of savior of the white race.
"I was always searching for ways to bring in the large sums of money that our cause needed," he wrote in one of the more remarkable defenses of his actions, "and although beating the odds at casinos seems unorthodox, even a bit foolish, it seemed to work. I hoped that I could perfect a system and find a way to permanently finance our activities. ... [W]hat poetic justice I thought it would be to ... turn the money to our cause!"