A Question Regarding Harmon
by Mara Leveritt
June 27, 1997

Congratulations are due to the FBI agents who investigated Dan Harmon, to the U.S. attorneys who prosecuted him, and to the jurors who convicted him earlier this month of running a racket under the guise of law enforcement. The first job of justice is to keep a clean house. This scouring was way overdue.

Harmon was a corrupt prosecuting attorney. He was also the corrupt head of a federally funded Drug Task Force. The combination gave him incredible power -- power which he abused.

Harmon was convicted of using illegal drugs at the same time he was sending others to prison for drugs. Worse, he was convicted of extortion, of running a shake-down operation out of his elected office.

Residents of the 7th Judicial District, which encompasses Saline, Grant and Hot Spring counties, have only gradually become aware of the stench emitting from the courthouse at Benton. That's why they voted Harmon out of office last fall.

But Harmon has hardly been discreet in his flaunting of the law. In past years he has been found guilty of failing to pay his taxes. He has refused to take drug tests when arrested. He has been accused of battery by several women, many of them his wives or ex-wives. He boasted of once having struck a fellow lawyer, an attack that was witnessed by a judge. And, on top of all of that, federal investigators had evidence as much as seven years ago that Harmon was involved with drugs.

But the man was never even censured, much less removed from office. Only now that he stands convicted of felonies will his license to practice law be taken away.

It is hard to imagine how much damage Dan Harmon did during the years he held office as prosecutor. Cases that should have been prosecuted were not. Cases that should not have been prosecuted no doubt were. Hundreds of citizens who learned of Harmon's way with justice directly through their own experience or through that of friends and relatives walked away from the courthouse cynical.

Harmon ran what a lawyer in Pulaski County recently described as "a reign of terror" in the counties he was sworn to serve. All of that raises the question of why the man was not stopped earlier. It could have happened.

And those are just the most obvious failures of the legal profession to correct abuses within its ranks. Less obvious but no less chilling are the opportunities that other judges, lawyers, and police passed up to put a halt to Harmon when they came across information that suggested what he was up to.

Dan Harmon was not operating in a vacuum. It is impossible to believe that he operated a criminal enterprise out of his prosecutor's office for years, one of the crimes for which he now stands convicted, without a certain awareness from others in the legal community.

In a way, our system of justice is like a nuclear power plant. It's big, powerful, and complex, and it relies on elaborate systems of monitoring to make sure that it's running correctly. If someone becomes aware that someone else is asleep at the switch -- or worse, is engaged in sabotage -- it is incumbent upon the observer to report the problem and on management to immediately respond. Otherwise, no one is safe.

So too with justice. If part of the system breaks down -- if someone is mishandling his job -- the machine ceases to be of service and starts to become a threat. The longer the part malfunctions, the more dangerous the machine becomes. It is not unreasonable to say that, as with a nuclear power plant, when the justice system fails, lives -- and, in fact, a way of life -- can be destroyed.

We count on police, lawyers, and judges to monitor their ranks. In the aftermath of Dan Harmon's conviction, the citizens of Arkansas, and especially of the 7th Judicial District, have a right to ask the legal profession: Why did it take a federal investigation and a jury to stop him?

Copyright Arkansas Writers' Project, Inc.

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