Politics & Policy

Back Down in Little Rock

Eugene Fields and an old familiar feeling.

It’s just like old times. National reporters are again scouring Arkansas. Except this time it is Republican Mike Huckabee’s record, not Democrat Bill Clinton’s, that is the subject of interest.

Over the course of more than a decade as governor, Huckabee granted over 1,000 commutations and pardons, and they’re currently being examined closely by journalists. The latest to draw national attention is a commutation of Eugene Fields, who had multiple drunk-driving convictions.

The question is if there was there a connection between his wife Glenda Fields’s five-figure political donations and Huckabee’s action. On April 14, 2004, then-Gov. Huckabee commuted the sentence of Mr. Fields — then a four-time driving-while-intoxicated offender — granting him early release from prison. Fields, a resident of the western Arkansas town of Van Buren, was a habitual offender. He had already been convicted of DWIs in 1996, 1998, and 2000, but his 2001 felony-DWI conviction resulted in the maximum six-year prison sentence and a $5,000 fine.

The political contributions by the Fields family — large by Arkansas standards — went unreported at the time Huckabee granted Eugene Fields executive clemency. The size of the donations places the Fields family in the top tier of the state GOP’s donors, alongside Arkansas aristocracy like the scions of the Fords and Stephens families. Both Scott Ford, CEO of Alltel, and Warren Stephens, CEO of Stephens, Inc., gave the Arkansas Republican party $10,000 in 2003. (Full disclosure: I write a column that is distributed by Stephens Media.)

A review of campaign-finance records shows that Fields’s wife, Glenda, made two $5,000 contributions to the Arkansas Republican party — one on June 26, 2003 and another on July 14, 2003. Less than two months before Glenda Fields wrote the first of those checks, the Arkansas Court of Appeals denied Eugene Fields’s petition for rehearing his 2001 felony DWI conviction.

Fields did not immediately report to prison. Four days before he began serving his prison sentence on August of 2003, he applied for commutation of his sentence. In his application, he claimed that his “alcohol abuse is under control” because of anti-depression medication, counseling, and his experience with Alcoholics Anonymous.

Political contributions weren’t the only donations made by the Fields family. Also contained in his application (along with a character reference from his Southern Baptist pastor) were copies of thank-you notes and tax receipts for financial contributions from charitable causes and organizations he’d supported: The Salvation Army, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce, and the First Baptist Church of Van Buren’s “Women’s Mission Ministry.” The scope of his charitable donations, which began around the time of his second DWI conviction, expanded as his DWI rap sheet grew.

On February 20, 2004, Huckabee announced his plan to make Fields eligible for parole. According to the Arkansas News Bureau, Huckabee “bristled” when pressed for specifics as to why he favored Fields’s being made eligible for parole only after serving such a short portion of his sentence. Huckabee claimed that he had a reason: “Board recommended it. Sentence was within two months. That’s the reason. What’s hard about that?”

When Huckabee granted the clemency in April, Fields had served seven and half months of his six-year sentence. Fields had already appeared before the parole board, which voted 5-0 to grant parole, making him eligible for parole on June 1 of that year.

Huckabee’s April 14 action accelerated the process, making Fields immediately eligible for parole and releasing him from prison. Field’s commutation drew the attention of Rhonda Sharp, the Post Prison Transfer Board’s spokeswoman told the Arkansas News Bureau. “I’ve never seen anything like this happen before,” she said the day Fields’s clemency was signed. “It’s very unusual.”

Several months after Huckabee’s grant of clemency, Glenda Fields capped her previous contributions with a final $500 check to the state Republican party. That appears to be her most recent political donation.

What isn’t known is if Huckabee and the Fields family had any connection other than the clemency review. However, another large political contribution to the state Republican party in 2000 and an alleged conversation about that contribution, which occurred that year between an Arkansas Republican-party official and one of Huckabee’s close confidants, suggests perhaps there was: Fields’s company, Fields Investments, made a $10,000 contribution to the state GOP on October 6, 2000 — the same day Republican vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney appeared in Fort Smith at a campaign rally.

According to an Arkansas Republican who was working for the state GOP at the time, Jason Brady called him shortly thereafter inquiring about Fields’s $10,000 donation. (Brady, who was known among Arkansas politicos as one of the former governor’s most loyal aides, worked for Huckabee either formally or informally every day of Huckabee’s nearly eleven-year tenure as governor.)

Brady had taken a leave of absence from the governor’s office to run the Victory 2000 Committee, a fundraising and campaign committee directly overseen at that time by Huckabee. The former state GOP official — who wishes to remain anonymous — said that Brady called him about the Fields donation to inform him that the donation was supposed to go to the Victory 2000 account (as opposed to the state party’s treasury, which Huckabee did not control) and told him “that the money was his” and that it was “the governor’s deal.”

Brady left Huckabee’s presidential campaign earlier this year and he now works in Jefferson City, Missouri. Attempts to contact him were unsuccessful.

Replying to a series of questions this author submitted Friday evening about Governor Huckabee’s decision-making process when granting Fields clemency, the Huckabee campaign issued this one-paragraph response: “Eugene Fields requested clemency before going to prison. Fields deserved time in jail and received it. In prison, he participated in a program to help other inmates with alcohol dependency issues overcome their illness. After completing his own alcohol-rehabilitation treatment, and with strong support from the community, his prison sentence was reduced to make room in an overcrowded system for violent offenders. He later relapsed and, due to his actions, he received the maximum penalties.” Appended to this response was an overview of Huckabee’s history of clemency decisions generally, which ended by stating that “there was no connection between those clemencies and any political donations.”

So was Field’s commutation normal or unusual? Public records reveal seven cases of felony DWI in which Huckabee granted a commutation. Based on these records, the Fields commutation was highly unusual in three respects.

First, his case was the only one in which public objections were raised. Both the Crawford County prosecutor and the county sheriff strongly objected to Fields’s executive clemency.

Second, there is a disparity between the Fields case and the others in respect to the time between conviction and clemency. When last convicted, Fields was 62 years old; but when Huckabee commuted his sentence he was 65 years old — a difference of three years. The years between convictions and executive clemencies for the others are as follows: 15 years, 17 years, 9 years, 14 years, 13 years, 10 years, and 14 years.

Third, Fields’s application contained none of the standard justifications for commutation requests. The form for executive clemency contains four reasons for clemency requests – the correction of injustice, a life-threatening medical condition, an excessive sentence, and exemplary institutional adjustment — and applicants are instructed to check the applicable box or boxes. The only comment Fields supplies for “reason(s) for applying for a commutation of my sentence” is a handwritten “N/A.”

(In another section of the application, Fields supplied his own justifications for commutation: his alcohol-related “health problems” and that the felony charge hampers his “efforts to help unfortunate children.” Although Fields’s charitable donations are sizable and commendable, the justifications he offers clearly are outside the standard reasons for commutation that the application form describes in detail.)

Apparently, Huckabee was not swayed by the objections of law-enforcement officials, the conspicuous lack of justification on Fields’s application, or the relative rapidity with which he granted executive clemency. Perhaps the famously forgiving governor thought that Fields learned his lesson.

If so, he was mistaken. In 2006, Fields was arrested for DWI after he almost crashed head-on with a police car while crossing a state highway’s center line. He pled guilty to the charge.

To be sure, all of this is merely suspicious and doesn’t prove Huckabee acted improperly. But the case will undoubtedly get even more attention, and probably get murkier rather than clearer. Welcome back to Arkansas.

– David J. Sanders is a columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau. Sanders briefly collaborated with an NBC producer on this story.

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