David Duke got off easy. Given the former Ku Klux Klan leader's long and well-documented history as a high-rolling racial profiteer and tax cheat, the federal government's negotiated felony conviction of Duke is more than a day late and a few dollars short. Worse, Republican Gov. Mike Foster's continued failure to denounce his former secret political ally doesn't help Louisiana's reputation for political corruption and racial demagoguery.
Duke, 52, a neo-Nazi and former national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, will be sentenced by federal Judge Eldon Fallon on March 19, 2003, to 15 months in prison and a $10,000 fine, according to Duke's plea agreement with prosecutors. Duke admitted defrauding his supporters of thousands of dollars in contributions and filing a false federal income tax return. As a convicted felon, Duke will be barred from running for any federal or state office for another 15 years after completing his prison term and subsequent probation sentence, unless he receives a presidential pardon.
We applaud the four federal agents who, our sources say, worked full time for 18 months piecing together evidence against Duke after the FBI raided his Mandeville home in 2000. However, the foundation for the government's case was laid in the research conducted more than a decade ago by the old Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism (LUCAR). The bi-racial, nonpartisan coalition of educators and clergy formed in 1989 after Duke was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives and fought to expose Duke during his 1990 campaign for the U.S. Senate and his 1991 race for governor. LUCAR detailed Duke's questionable financial conduct in a report the federal government belatedly utilized in its tax probe. In fact, given the mounds of evidence against Duke, federal prosecutors should someday explain why it took more than two decades to catch him. Consider the following:
· In 1980, Duke quit the Klan, tainted by allegations from a rival KKK leader that he attempted to sell the hate-mongers' mailing list to non-members for $35,000.
· During the 1980s, LUCAR first reported that Duke "travels extensively to Las Vegas where he gambles as much as $10,000 per game -- during a time when he claims to have been earning less than $12,000 per year. Duke also invests heavily in the stock market throughout this period, according to his stockbroker."
· In 1987, Duke was arrested in Forsyth County, Ga., for attempting to block a black civil rights march. He raised $20,000 for his legal defense against the charge, which resulted in a $50 fine. The rest of the money is unaccounted for.
· In 1989, Tulane researchers revealed that Duke was selling racist and Nazi literature from his legislative office -- after claiming that he had joined the Republican mainstream. He also received piles of mail daily at his legislative office and at his desk in the Louisiana House of Representatives, often pulling out cash from the envelopes.
· In 1990, Duke failed to file state income tax returns from 1984-87, but continued to gamble away as much as $10,000 on trips to Las Vegas.
· In 1991, Duke reportedly failed to pay $2,857 in property taxes on his Metairie home over a three-year period. Duke also repeatedly claimed to be "broke" the same year that LUCAR released a report showing he loaned his political campaigns more than $70,000, "and he has taken money from loyal contributors and steered it to his own personal use through a shadow company he owns."
But the real crime to which Duke will never confess is the pain he visited upon Louisiana. "The gravest offense is the moral transgressions that were not legally actionable ... stirring up the embers of racism," says Tulane University historian Lawrence N. Powell, former vice-chair of LUCAR and author of the book Troubled Memory: Anne Levy, the Holocaust, and David Duke's Louisiana. "He did a real disservice dragging us down that right fork of racial fear and hatred and turning the white have-littles against the black have-nots."
As for Mike Foster, he once appeared to be a breath of fresh air after the "runoff from hell" between Edwin Edwards and Duke. But the feds' long investigation of Duke showed that Foster paid more than $150,000 for Duke's old mailing list of supporters in the 1995 campaign for governor. U.S. Attorney Jim Letten says Foster's purchase was not a federal crime, but history will note he became the first Louisiana governor to plead guilty to ethics charges -- for attempting to conceal his political deal with Duke.
Duke's posturing as a mainstream politician was as phony as his surgically altered face. Unfortunately, he succeeded in shifting public debates from economic problems to racial polemics. Today, as Louisiana sits at the bottom of most economic indices, progress on race relations has been incremental, which hampers ongoing attempts to combat crime and implement educational and economic reforms.
We cannot lay all of Louisiana's woes at Duke's door. But, as the former Klan leader and unrepentant neo-Nazi goes to prison for the smallest of his crimes, his gravest offense -- fomenting hatred and divisiveness -- will go unpunished. He got off easy.