May 2, 1997

Curious timing

By Mara Leveritt
Arkansas Times

The billionaire philanthropist George Soros said, "I firmly believe the war on drugs is doing more harm to our society than drug abuse itself," and I agree.

Gradually, many people are reaching the same conclusion; the failures of the war on drugs having grown so obvious. Cartels have flourished, prisons have burgeoned, courts have swelled, neighborhoods have become unsafe, and countless criminal activities have been financed by laundered money -- and still, drugs are everywhere, especially in our prisons. How do we think we can keep drugs off of our streets when we cannot keep them out of our prisons?

It's a dismal situation. But the worst of it, it seems to me, is the public corruption that inevitably accompanies restrictions in supply and demand. Corruption brings drugs into prisons. Corruption allows drugs onto our streets. The drug trade could not flourish anywhere without an assist from people in power. This is true, not just in Mexico and Colombia, but in the United States, as well.

Recently, allegations of a particularly insidious form of corruption have arisen -- again-- in central Arkansas. At the center of the alleged scheme is Dan Harmon, a Benton lawyer. He is charged with running a drug-related "criminal enterprise" while serving as prosecuting attorney for the state's 7th Judicial District and heading its federally funded drug task force. Because of Harmon's position, at the nexus of politics, law enforcement, the courts, and a ring of alleged drug entrepreneurs, his case is as faceted as a jewel and as intriguing. It warrants close attention, and I promise, it will receive some in this column. But consider this for now: The indictments issued by a federal grand jury last month claim that for the past six years since August of 1991 -- Harmon has run his office as a criminal enterprise, possessed stolen drugs and demanded money in return for dropping charges. That's quite an operation. What I question is the dating of the indictments back only so far as August of 1991. That timing itself is rife with political overtones. Consider what was already known about Harmon before then, some of which was outlined in an article by John Brummett that appeared in the Arkansas Times in July of 1991:

The article also reported several instances when Harmon did engage in physical violence, including one when he beat a fellow attorney in front of a judge in the judge's chambers. In none of the instances was Harmon arrested or even censured.

And Harmon slipped through the federal grand jury's fingers, as well. Almost simultaneously with that 1991 story's publication, Banks cleared Harmon, saying that there was "no evidence of drug-related misconduct by any public official."

Yet now, six years later, a second federal grand jury investigating Harmon has concluded that evidence linking Harmon with cocaine, methamphetamine, and abuse of office did exist -- or at least that it began to emerge within days after Banks had cleared him.

What kind of nonsense is this?

Harmon has been under suspicion for running a drug-related criminal enterprise in the district he was supposed to be serving throughout this decade. The citizens of the 7th Judicial District have known it, as have many state and federal investigators. The long-running unwillingness of authorities to censure him, even for documented physical assaults, has undercut public confidence in the district's entire legal system. And now we have this added insult: Last week, Barbara Webb, Harmon's successor as prosecuting attorney, won her first drug-related conviction. A 32-year-old Benton man was sentenced to eight years in prison and fined $15,000 for growing three marijuana plants. "We are real pleased with the result," Webb said afterward. "I think it sends a strong message that Saline County takes drug crimes seriously." A message is being sent, all right, but I think it's a different one. It is that we will continue to be treated like fools for exactly as long as we allow it.

Copyright ©1996, 1997 Arkansas Writers' Project, Inc.

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