The guilty plea of white supremacist David Duke for corruption is only the latest episode in the life of a voracious con man.
David Duke knew exactly what he wanted when he strolled into the Washington, D.C., area office of the neo-Nazi National Alliance in the mid-1970s. It was his first meeting with William Pierce, the Alliance's founder and Duke's senior by nearly 20 years, but the rising star of the Ku Klux Klan wasn't shy about what he was there for: Would the former physics professor share his membership list?
The answer, of course, was no. Pierce had promised to keep his supporters' names confidential. And anyway, mailing lists are the stock-in-trade for hate group leaders, critically important to building a movement and especially to raising money. Virtually no white supremacist is ready to give away his financial lifeline.
But Duke was not to be deterred, according to an associate of the Alliance leader. As soon as Pierce left for lunch, the handsome young Klansman talked Pierce's secretary into making him a copy of the list. When Pierce returned, he was furious. Pierce, who died last July, would never fully trust Duke again.
There was a time when David Ernest Duke was headed for superstardom as America's leading extremist, a neo-Nazi-cum-Klansman-cum-radical-populist who astonished the political world by winning 670,000 votes — almost 55% of the state's white ballots — in a 1991 bid to become governor of Louisiana.
He was described as "the most effective spokesman for disaffected whites since Alabama Gov. George Wallace," a white supremacist who had the potential to win major elective office, the man who had moved the Klan from white sheets to dark suits and ties. Just last fall, a close associate lionized Duke as a key "rallying figure" for racists.
Those kinds of accolades were once quite true. But today, thanks to his habit of ripping off even his ideological comrades, Duke's world has collapsed.
On Dec. 14, after more than two years of avoiding prosecution by living in Russia and a series of other European countries, David Duke returned to the land of his birth. Four days after paying a visit to his ailing father in New Jersey, he slunk into a federal courthouse in New Orleans and pleaded guilty to tax evasion and mail fraud — ripping off hundreds of thousands of dollars from earnest white supremacist donors who thought they were helping Duke to save the white race.
Instead, as the one-time globe-trotting jetsetter would admit sheepishly in court, he had cynically raised money by using a series of lies — and then blown it at casino craps tables.
It was only the latest episode in the life of a man who has never really worked for a living. "David Duke has been a professional racist for his entire adult life," said Tyler Bridges, author of The Rise of David Duke, the definitive biography of Duke's early years. "He deeply believes his anti-Semitic political philosophy, but it has also been a way for him to get money from his followers. It is how he makes a living."
As it turns out, Duke, 52, has spent virtually his entire career living off the kindness of strangers — people who mistakenly thought he was championing their cause for no other reason than a desire to help whites. He sold and resold supposedly secret mailing lists, raised money under false pretenses, and lived off the proceeds of fund-raising for at least 10 different political campaigns. He womanized shamelessly and spent thousands on cosmetic surgery for himself.
From his formative years as a university neo-Nazi right up to the present, David Duke's foremost concern always has been David Duke. For 30 years now, America's best-known white supremacist has engaged in a striking pattern of financial chicanery and self-serving rip-offs.
"He is a consummate confidence man," a law enforcement official involved in building the latest case against Duke told the Intelligence Report. "He gets people to believe that he's doing their work with their money. And he's not, period."
Money, Sex and Celebrity
David Duke first got caught with his hand in the till in 1972, shortly after he temporarily dropped out of Louisiana State University to devote himself to full-time neo-Nazi activism, according to Bridges' book.
Police arrested Duke and three others for allegedly raising $500 for George Wallace's presidential campaign and pocketing the money. The charges were dropped after an influential Duke mentor convinced Wallace campaign officials to change their story, the book said.
By 1974, Duke had founded the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and it wasn't long before he became the media's favorite Klan leader. Vowing to modernize the Klan, he urged his acolytes to "get out of the cow pasture and into hotel meeting rooms." After appearing on Tom Snyder's "Tomorrow" talk show, he was able to use his newfound celebrity to recruit Louis Beam, Don Black and Tom Metzger, who each went on to play key roles in America's racist underground.
During this same period, starting with a failed 1975 bid for the Louisiana state senate, Duke began a series of political campaigns. It appears certain they were at least partly funded with money taken from his Klan group's coffers.
Before long, several of Duke's most intimate allies would grow weary of his self-serving personality. Pierce, who Duke had begun corresponding with when the Louisianan was still a teenager, admonished Duke to quit taking credit for an important Pierce pamphlet, "Who Runs the Media?" Others in the racist movement angrily responded to what would soon become Duke's notorious womanizing.
"I idolized Duke when I was younger. I looked up to him," the Rev. Johnny Lee Clary, who served as Duke's bodyguard in the late 1970s but later became an anti-racist activist, said in an interview. "He would get up and wave the Bible around and talk about Christian values. But when I got to know him on a personal level, I saw what he was really like, and it disgusted me. ... I traveled alongside Duke and I watched him at work. I saw him take a Klansman's wife to his hotel room."
Duke, then a married man with two children, pursued female sex partners so avidly and so openly that it embarrassed many of his closest colleagues. Metzger, then Duke's state leader in southern California, became livid when Duke showed up for a 1977 Klan anti-immigrant "border watch" stunt and immediately started hitting on women.
"We used to tell people, 'When Duke comes to town make sure your wife is safely locked up and don't let him near your daughters,'" Metzger recalled.
Duke did have his limits, however, generally confining himself to "Aryan" types. One legislative aide told John Maginnis, author of the Duke profile Cross to Bear, how she learned of Duke's amatory preferences during a bizarre date in Baton Rouge.
The two were having lunch, she said, "when he started explaining to me that blond, blue-eyed Scandinavian-looking people were God's chosen people, that they were made in his image. He said that God didn't want to dilute this perfection, so we should only mate with others of our kind. He then asked me if I wanted to mate with him. It was the weirdest come-on line I've ever heard."
Duke would also develop a life-long weakness for gambling. Maginnis quotes a Las Vegas regular who once spotted Duke on a Mississippi gambling cruise boat. "There was David Duke," the man told Maginnis. "But he looked like Edwin [Edwards, the corrupt Louisiana governor who would later go to prison]. He had a babe on each arm and he was shooting craps and betting pretty heavy."
Duke tried to cash in on his alleged expertise beneath the sheets by writing Finders-Keepers, a sex manual for women ("You must love sex for its own sake," he wrote). Published in 1976 under a pseudonym, this tawdry guide advocated one-night stands, adultery, and anal and oral sex. A bestseller it was not, but the Knights' imperial wizard had other fundraising scams up his robed sleeve.
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.
Campaigns, Fines and Secret Sales
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!"