April 18, 1997

Harmonizing drugs and law

BY Mara Leveritt
Arkansas Times

How's this for a criminal enterprise: Say you're a drug dealer, an operator, a profiteer on the narcotics black market. You buy the stuff and you sell it. You know your customers as well as your suppliers. You've got connections, all of them secret.

Yours is a lucrative business. The only problem is that it's illegal. For most drug traffickers, dealing with the law can be a nuisance. But say that you are the law. Say that you're the prosecuting attorney and that you've got the head of the local drug task force the guy who carries the gun working for you as one of your employees. In this case, your legal problems can be reduced.

Consider it from a business point of view. You've got a drug-distribution area that you control, on the streets as well as in court. If competition appears, your friend in the drug task force dispatches some of his undercover officers who also carry guns to the newcomers for a chat. The technique is usually fairly effective.

If the interlopers ignore the message, the drug task force whips into action, sweeping up the offenders so that you, the anti-drug, law-and-order prosecutor, can throw the book at them To the law-abiding public, you come out a hero. To the law-abiding public, you're a drug-fighting hero. Your competitors see a police-backed monopoly. This combination of criminality and legal authority works for you all around. Say some cop who's not on your payroll hauls in someone in your organization. No problem. The cop can file charges till he's blue in the face, but so long as you're the prosecutor, certain cases simply fall through the cracks. A charge is little more than an annoyance' if it's never prosecuted.

You can even turn the prosecutor's office itself into a profit center. That power to bring people before the law is a persuasive one. "Look, hon," you could say to a defendant, "our little ol' drug task force has found out that you're up to your neck in illegal activities." (You could say this, whether or not it was true. In this arena, niceties like the truth don't much matter.) So you say, "Now, if we take you to court, considering that I hardly ever lose a case, you're going to spend about the next 150 years in prison. Or we could negotiate." Some people will find ways of coming up with a lot of cash to avoid 150 - years - or even five minutes - in the Arkansas Department of Correction.

Now, say you've been at this for several years, wearing-your white hat as prosecutor while lining your pockets with black market cash. You know where the bodies are buried. You know who has paid how much for what. You've entered extortion heaven.

The information you've gleaned, through shake-downs by your task force and payoffs in your office, is an asset of considerable worth. What you know about some people is a golden chain around their throats. Anytime they even think about singing, you can yank it.

If, for years, all the oversight and law enforcement authorities who know what you're up to opt to leave you alone, you've pretty much got it made. Only the stupidest of bad luck could interfere ...

Well, here's to stupidest of luck. It finally caught up with Dan Harmon, the former prosecuting attorney for Saline, Grant, and Hot Spring counties. What happened to Harmon was so stupid, in fact, that law enforcement authorities who have stayed out of Harmon's way for decades were forced to show some interest. In December 1995, when Harmon's ex-wife was caught red handed with drug evidence that had been taken from Harmon's evidence locker and especially once that incident was reported in the media the possibility of slipping this latest bit of Harmon business under the rug was seriously diminished.

Last week, a federal grand jury charged Harmon with racketeering, dealing in cocaine, manufacture of methamphetamine, extortion, witness tampering, and retaliating against an informant. Roger Walls, administrator of the drug task force, and a third man, a Sheridan attorney, were also indicted in the scheme, and other indictments may be coming. Watch what happens in the next few weeks. We hear about cops-and-drugs scandals elsewhere. This is Arkansas's own, and it's a doozy. After nearly two decades in operation, what the grand jury called Harmon's "criminal enterprise" was almost certainly not a small one. The question now is how deep the indictments will go. What do you think? Will the corruption that has plagued the 7th Judicial Distract be cleaned out? Or will this just be a little dusting, leaving the infrastructure that has supported Harmon - his investors, you might say - untouched? Write me with your bets and opinions here at the Times, or e-mail me at mleveritt@aristotle.net. And stay tuned. What happens next will tell us a lot.

Copyright 1997 Arkansas Writers Project, Inc.
Reproduced with permission.