Thursday, May 21, 1998

'Maximum' merited, judge says in giving Harmon 8-year term

LINDA FRIEDLIEB
ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

Former Prosecuting Attorney Dan Harmon will spend eight years behind bars for racketeering, extortion and drug offenses and faces still more prison time for additional drug convictions.
    "There is just something extraordinary about someone who is a prosecuting attorney misusing the judicial system, misusing the drug task force which is supposed to fight drugs," Chief U.S. District Judge Stephen M. Reasoner observed Wednesday. "I don't think the court has any choice but to impose the maximum."
    Under federal sentencing guidelines, Harmon, 53, of Benton faced between 78 and 97 months in prison for his five June 1997 convictions. A jury found Harmon guilty of one count of racketeering, three of conspiring to commit extortion and one of conspiring to possess and distribute marijuana. The racketeering charge concerned Harmon's use of the 7th Judicial District prosecuting attorney's office as an illegal crime organization to obtain drugs and money.
    The prison time ordered by Reasoner will be followed by three years of supervised release, including drug testing. The judge also ordered Harmon to pay $16,000 in restitution to victims of two extortion schemes, a $25,000 fine and $300 in court costs.
    Harmon was prosecuting attorney for the district, which includes Saline, Grant and Hot Spring counties, from 1979 until 1980 and then again from 1991 until 1996, when he was forced to resign in a plea agreement over state charges. At that time, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and guilty to a second misdemeanor in state court.
    Lea Ellen Fowler, Harmon's attorney, said Harmon would appeal his federal convictions as well as the sentence Reasoner imposed Wednesday.
    Harmon declined to speak at the hearing. Through his attorney, Harmon asked that he be imprisoned as close to home as possible and that he be allowed to participate in any prison work-incentive program so that he might contribute to the support of his 10-year-old son.
    Fowler argued that Harmon, as a former law enforcement officer, would be vulnerable in prison and should be given the minimum sentence allowed.
    But Harmon actually received less prison time than Assistant U.S. Attorneys Dan Stripling and George Vena wanted. They had argued unsuccessfully that a different sentencing guideline should be used to calculate Harmon's offense level for the three extortion charges.
    While Reasoner chose to follow guidelines dealing with bribery of a public official, the prosecutors wanted him to use a guideline titled "Extortion by Force or Threat of Injury of Serious Damage." Stripling said in court Wednesday that the extortion guideline would have given Harmon a sentence of about 210 months -- or more than 17 years.
    In a written decision, Reasoner wrote that the money was given to Harmon to prevent him from doing his job as elected prosecutor rather than to prevent him from harming -- physically, financially or otherwise -- those upon whom he worked the extortion.
    "The real 'threat' by Dan Harmon was the possibility (or the probability) of the victims being prosecuted for their criminal conduct, as each properly should have been," Reasoner noted.
    Stripling said in court that prosecutors are considering an appeal of the guidelines issue. For the U.S. attorney's office to appeal, permission must be obtained from the U.S. Department of Justice.
    Harmon was indicted in April 1997 on 11 charges. He opted for an immediate trial, effectively severing from his case all of his co-defendants, including Roger Walls, former head of the 7th Judicial District Drug Task Force. After nearly three weeks of testimony, Harmon was convicted of five charges and acquitted of six more.
    The jury convicted Harmon of three extortion charges in violation of the Hobbs Act, which governs interstate commerce. The first dealt with the extortion of $50,000 from drug dealers Kay LaJean O'Brien and Freddie McCaslin in exchange for the dismissal of drug charges pending against McCaslin.
    Another extortion charge dealt with the case of Ernest Varnardo, a Texas man who was arrested for drug possession while traveling through Harmon's district. Walls and Harmon traveled to Varnardo's home in Fort Worth, picked him up, brought him back to Arkansas and incarcerated him. They later released him after a cash payment. Harmon later demanded additional payments. Walls was convicted on this charge in a January 1998 trial.
    The third extortion charge Harmon faced concerned the demand $10,000 from another drug defendant, Patrick Davis of Indiana. Davis' wife, Tina, obtained the money from her mother and brought it to Arkansas, where Harmon told her she would have to provide either more money or have sex with him, Tina Davis testified during the trial. She refused and then paid Harmon the $10,000, and the couple signed a disclaimer on the money. Patrick Davis was then released.
    Tina Davis' mother and Ernest Varnardo will each be reimbursed out of Harmon's restitution.
    Harmon was also convicted of conspiring to possess marijuana with the intent to distribute, a charge that involved the sale of 117 pounds of marijuana found in the car of Arturo Valdez during a traffic stop. Valdez, who was also charged in the conspiracy, remains at large with arrest warrants pending.
    The racketeering conviction relied on Harmon's convictions on at least two other offenses, which made up the substantive acts of an illegal criminal enterprise.
    After his trial, Harmon was allowed to go home on supervised release with electronic monitoring to await sentencing.
    On Oct. 4, he was arrested again after traveling to his girlfriend's Conway apartment. When FBI agents attempted to arrest Harmon, who was supposed to remain in Saline County while on release, he ran through the complex and jumped in a man-made pond.
    The incident led to four new drug charges: possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, attempting to distribute methamphetamine and two counts of using a telephone in a drug transaction. He was convicted of all four counts after a one-day trial in April.
    Prosecutors played tapes of Harmon's conversations with Patricia Vaughn, his girlfriend, and argued that Harmon jumped in the water because methamphetamine would dissolve when wet. An expert testified that traces of the drug were found on a piece of foil in Harmon's possession.
    Using a telephone in a drug transaction carries maximum penalties of eight years in prison and a $60,000 fine. The other two charges carry maximum penalties of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The sentence could be enhanced up to 10 years for committing the crimes while on supervised release from his earlier convictions. No date has been set for the sentencing.

Copyright 1998, Little Rock Newspapers, Inc. All rights reserved.

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