Tuesday, May 27, 1997

Harmon gathers 'courage to stand up' to government

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Is Dan Harmon a cunning racketeer who used his position as prosecuting attorney to obtain illicit drugs, money and sex, or is he the victim of powerful federal investigators trying to railroad him for their own nefarious purposes?

Federal prosecutors will set out to prove the former image while Harmon maintains the latter as the trial of the former prosecuting attorney of the state's 7th Judicial District kicks off with jury selection today. The question's answer will be left to a federal jury that, under the supervision of Chief U.S. District Judge Stephen M. Reasoner, should get the case next month.

Harmon, 52, faces 11 charges under an indictment the grand jury handed up in April, including a charge that he ran his prosecuting attorney's office as a corrupt organization in violation of the federal Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations act. The 7th Judicial District includes Saline, Grant and Hot Spring counties.

The indictment also includes two counts of possession with the intent to distribute cocaine hydrochloride, four of conspiracy to extort money, two of conspiracy to manufacture drugs, one of witness tampering and one of retaliation against a witness.

Harmon repeatedly has denied all the allegations, once calling the charges "something out of Alice in Wonderland.''

"It takes a lot of courage to stand up to the federal government,'' Harmon said Friday. "I had no idea that our government is this vindictive and this political.''

Harmon was indicted with seven co-defendants, including defense attorney Bill Murphy and Sheridan businessman Roger Walls, who share the racketeering charge. Walls headed the drug task force based in Harmon's office.

But Harmon will be tried alone because he was the only defendant to object to postponing the trial. All of the other defendants either requested or indicated they did not object to a continuance. Walls and Murphy are scheduled for trial together with two other co-defendants in January.

Meanwhile, Harmon said he and his attorney, Lea Ellen Fowler of Little Rock, have had a difficult time preparing for trial.

"I've had a week of playing basketball,'' Harmon said. "There's nothing you can do to prepare when you don't have the names of the witnesses. ... You have no idea what they're going to say because it's all so fantastic.''

"It's strictly trial by ambush,'' he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Stripling has said in court that a room full of discovery evidence at the FBI office in Little Rock is open to the defense attorneys and their clients. Stripling, who is prosecuting Harmon, and U.S. Attorney Paula Casey declined to comment on the case.

"The judge severed Harmon and told us to be ready for trial, so we'll be ready for trial,'' Casey said Thursday.

When Harmon and his co-defendants were indicted, the defense attorneys immediately went on the attack, criticizing the government's witnesses as a bunch of criminals looking for revenge against the man who put them in prison. The credibility of the government's case may depend partly on the credibility of witnesses who have criminal records or have accepted plea agreements.

One key witness may be Harmon's ex-wife, Holly DuVall.

Before Harmon was indicted, DuVall faced two drug charges in federal court, including possession of more than 1 kilogram of cocaine allegedly stolen from the 7th Judicial District Drug Task Force evidence locker. While indicting Harmon, the grand jury eliminated the drug charges against DuVall and charged her with the lesser offense of misprision -- knowing about but not reporting a felony.

According to the indictment, DuVall and Harmon, while married, broke into the task force evidence locker and stole the cocaine. DuVall is expected to plead guilty to the lesser offense and testify against her ex-husband.

DuVall is named but not indicted in another count in which she allegedly possessed with the intent to distribute marijuana with Harmon and two co-defendants, John M. Steward of Benton and Arturo Valdez of San Antonio. Steward and Valdez are charged only in that count, and an arrest warrant is pending for Valdez.

For those indicted with Harmon, the trial beginning today will be an opportunity to observe the prosecution's case. As he left the courthouse a few weeks ago after Reasoner set the two trial dates, Murphy's attorney, Stuart Vess, said he would order a transcript of Harmon's trial.

Two defendants, Thakor N. and Pravin N. Patel, are charged in money laundering counts with Walls. Reasoner agreed that those charges should be handled in a third trial, which has yet to be scheduled.

In the racketeering charge, Harmon as prosecutor, Walls as drug task force head and Murphy as defense attorney are accused of running the prosecuting attorney's office as a criminal enterprise to extort money and confiscate drugs. Ten acts are delineated in the charge.

One of the acts, listed as retaliation against a witness, deals with Harmon's May 1996 assault on Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Benton bureau chief Rodney Bowers, who investigated and wrote about Harmon's activities and the drug task force throughout 1995 and 1996. Harmon attacked Bowers after the reporter approached the then-prosecutor seeking comment for an article about forfeiture of property seized by the drug task force.

The four charges on conspiracy to extort deal with sums up to $100,000.

In one incident described in the indictment, a woman named Tina Davis traveled to Arkansas from Indiana to deliver $10,000 to her husband, who had been arrested in Saline County on marijuana charges.

When she arrived, the indictment says, Harmon advised Davis that her husband would not be released unless she got more money or had sex with the prosecutor. The husband was later released for $10,000 and the couple was forced to sign a disclaimer saying the two had been arrested with the money and had no claim to it, the indictment says.

In the other extortion cases, the indictment alleges, Harmon took money for releasing defendants from custody or reducing the charges they faced in state drug cases

Copyright 1997, Little Rock Newspapers, Inc. All rights reserved.