June 12, 1997

Jury convicts Harmon; he blames FBI, media

By Linda Friedlieb
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Former Prosecuting Attorney Dan Harmon was found guilty Wednesday of five of 11 federal felony charges, including racketeering by using his office to get drugs and money.

Leaning back in his chair, Harmon showed no emotion as Chief U.S. District Judge Stephen M. Reasoner announced the racketeering conviction, as well as guilty verdicts on three counts of extortion and one count of possession with the intent to distribute marijuana.

As he left the courthouse Wednesday, Harmon insisted once again on his innocence.

"The FBI got so far out on a limb digging up something on me,'' he said. "Eighteen months later, the best they could do is parade criminals from the penitentiary. .... There's nothing good about being accused of things you didn't do. But to be convicted is outrageous on the words of criminals and drug addicts.''

Harmon also assigned the media, especially the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a role in his conviction.

"How's anyone supposed to get a fair trial with this [media] circus going on?'' he asked.

The jury of nine women and three men began their deliberations late Monday and pondered the charges against Harmon all day Tuesday and Wednesday before returning a verdict at about 4 p.m.

Although Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Stripling asked that Harmon be detained after the verdict because he posed a threat to the safety of witnesses, Reasoner ordered that Harmon be put on home detention with electronic monitoring until his sentencing.

Reasoner said he would hold a hearing next week, if prosecutors still want one, on whether Harmon needs to be imprisoned while awaiting sentencing.

Lea Ellen Fowler, Harmon's attorney, said she and her client would review the trial transcript and prepare an appeal on the convictions, pointing out that Harmon was acquitted on more charges than he was convicted.

Harmon was acquitted on one count of witness tampering, a count of retaliation against an informant, two counts of possession with the intent to distribute drugs and a fourth count of extortion.

Harmon's sentencing hearing will be in a few months.

The maximum statutory penalty for each of the five charges on which he was convicted is 20 years in prison and a fine of $150,000. Sentences are governed by the federal sentencing guidelines, and the actual sentence is likely to be significantly lower than the maximum of 100 years behind bars.

U.S. Attorney Paula Casey said the prosecutors were pleased with the verdict and confident that the jury had deliberated carefully on all of the issues.

"I also believe the essence of the government's allegations were proved,'' she said, citing specifically the conviction on the racketeering charges which essentially indicated Harmon repeatedly abused his power as an elected official for the 7th Judicial District.

''I hope it sends out a signal ... that [federal authorities] take the administration of justice very seriously,'' Casey said. "The people who administer the law should abide by the law.''

Casey declined to speculate on the effect the verdict could have on the upcoming trial of former 7th Judicial District Drug Task Force head Roger Walls and defense lawyer Bill Murphy.

Walls and Murphy were indicted with Harmon in April, and they share some of the same charges -- including the racketeering charge on which Harmon was convicted Wednesday. Both men are scheduled for trial in January 1998.

Harmon served as prosecuting attorney for the 7th Judicial District -- Grant, Saline and Hot Spring counties -- until his resignation in July 1996 as part of a plea agreement in state court.

Prosecutors were aided by many witnesses who broke laws, including Harmon co-defendants Holly DuVall and John Steward, who each pleaded to charges and testified against Harmon. In the possession with the intent to distribute marijuana charge, the jury decided that Harmon participated in and benefited from the sale of 117 pounds of marijuana found in the car of Arturo Valdez during a traffic stop.

Valdez, who was included in the federal indictment against Harmon, was freed after the traffic stop. He remains at large with arrest warrants pending.

The three extortion convictions have Harmon taking money from individuals caught with drugs in exchange for forgetting about prosecution.

In one of the three extortion charges, La Jean O'Brien and Freddie McCaslin testified that they paid Harmon and Murphy $50,000 to stop pursuing drug charges against them.

O'Brien testified that their drug ring regularly used Murphy for representation and that she made payments to Harmon through Murphy. Some of the money was placed in 7th Judicial District Drug Task Force accounts.

In another instance, the jury decided Harmon extorted thousands of dollars from a Texan, Ernest Varnardo, stopped on Interstate 30 and charged with possession of a controlled substance with the intent to deliver.

The final extortion charge on which he was convicted had Harmon taking $10,000 in exchange for allowing an Indiana resident, Patrick Davis, to leave the state without being prosecuting after being found with drugs during a traffic stop.

Tina Davis, Patrick's former wife, testified that Harmon forced her to sign a paper saying the money was properly seized. She also testified that Harmon first asked her for more money, and then for a night of sex, in exchange for her husband's release and that he snorted a line of cocaine in front of her in the prosecuting attorney's office.

In order to convict on the racketeering charge, the jury had to find Harmon used his prosecuting attorney's office to commit at least two of the acts outlined in the other 10 charges in the indictment.

Harmon pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges connected to an attack on Saline County sheriff's deputies and no contest to a third misdemeanor related to a physical assault on Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Rodney Bowers. Charges related to an alleged attack on Harmon's fourth ex-wife, DuVall, were dropped.

Harmon's assault against Bowers resulted in the retaliation against an informant charge in the federal indictment. Bowers, whose stories prosecutors said were frequently read by FBI agents, testified he was seeking Harmon's comment for a story about seizures made by the drug task force.

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

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