Another troubling Huckabee clemency

Since 1992 I’ve wished that what happens in Arkansas would just stay in Arkansas. And that includes the state’s politicians as well as what they do, how they do it and who they do it for.

Much discussed lately is Gov. Mike Huckabee’s incredible record on issuing clemencies — more than 1,000 of them during his 10 years as governor. National Review and MSNBC are both reporting on a suspicious one involving an evidently incorrigible DWI convict who just happens to donate lots of money both to the AR GOP and to Baptist causes in the state. That the story is coming from both a liberal and a conservative outlet at roughly the same time suggests to me that it’s being fed to the press by a rival campaign, but nevertheless, if the facts are as reported, it doesn’t look good for Huckabee.

Questions are being raised about then-Gov. Huckabee’s 2004 decision to grant clemency to a repeat Driving While Intoxicated offender in Arkansas named Eugene Fields, despite the objections of a law enforcement official at the time. Documents obtained by NBC News reveal Fields’ case was handled differently from any other DWI clemency or pardon granted by Huckabee, and some Republicans are now suggesting significant political contributions may have influenced the governor’s decision.

In August 2001, Fields, of Van Buren, Ark., was convicted of his fourth DWI charge, a felony in the state of Arkansas, was sentenced to six years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Fields reported to prison in August of 2003.

But prison records obtained by NBC News show that six weeks into that six-year sentence, Fields’ application for clemency, a commutation of his sentence the governor could issue to grant Fields an early release from prison, was unanimously supported by the parole board. Within months, Huckabee issued his intent to grant executive clemency to Fields, who was released from prison soon thereafter.

On Fields’ application for a commutation of his sentence, four options are listed as possible reasons as to why the application was being made, including, “I wish to correct an injustice which may have occurred during trial,” and, “I want to adjust what may be considered an excessive sentence.” No boxes are checked on Fields’ application; instead “N/A” is written across the top of the sheet, for “Not Applicable.”

That’s the MSNBC set-up. Here’s the NRO writer’s take on why this particular clemency was unusual.

First, his case was the only one in which public objections were raised. Both the Crawford Country 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.”

Both the MSNBC and NRO articles also do a good job of laying out the relevant donations.

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.

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.

They’re not huge by national standards but do land in the upper echelon of state donations in Arkansas. None of this proves Huckabee did anything wrong, but it’s one of those things, like the infamous Clinton pardon of Mark Rich, that looks like selling government favors for cash. That the donations grew as Fields’ rap sheet stretched out is certainly something worth entertaining as a relevant fact.

Whether news of this clemency will dent Huckabee’s 9-point lead in Iowa is anyone’s guess, but I’d guess no at this point. Like most conservative bloggers I’ve been scratching my head about Huckabee’s rapid rise in the polls both nationally and state by state. Going by his record and most of what he says, he’s at best a squishy conservative. My take is that he’s hardly a political conservative at all though he is socially conservative on some issues, so his rise makes little sense apart from his getting some lift outside the normal channels of politics. And after thinking it over for a while, I do think he may be benefiting from just such a lift. It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that that lift, if it’s happening, is coming primarily from evangelical Christians. It may surprise some to learn how it’s happening so quickly and why it may be all but impossible to break.

Here’s what I suspect. I can’t prove this, but I think Huckabee is getting enormous lift from one near-endorsement he earned that hardly anyone is talking about. It’s from Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California, and it appeared on Huckabee’s official website in November.

Dr. Rick Warren recently made this statement discussing Governor Huckabee on a radio program:

“I know most of the candidates running for president but I’ve known Mike Huckabee the longest, since we did our graduate degrees together in the late 70s. Mike’s a man of vision, compassion, and integrity. I’ve watched his uncanny ability to identify with normal people in ways that many leaders don’t. That’s probably why TIME named him one of the five best governors in America. He’s definitely presidential material. But honestly, what I find most appealing is his self-deprecating humor. That’s a key sign of a spiritually and emotionally healthy leader – someone who is comfortable with himself, is authentic, doesn’t wear a mask, and is secure enough to be humble. People love that.”

Huckabee was still a second-tier candidate at the time and thus few noticed that statement’s appearance. The earliest major blog mention of it that I found was on Campaign Spot on November 28.

People who don’t spend much time in church or who don’t pay much attention to trends in church settings probably aren’t familiar with too many pastors, or at least aren’t familiar with many pastors who haven’t been caught bilking their followers out of millions of dollars or been caught in some other corruption, but chances are most of you have heard of Rick Warren. He’s the author of the mega best seller The Purpose-Driven Life. He’s also clean as a whistle on the corruption front. And he’s in my opinion the single most influential Protestant pastor in America, by far, and may be the most influential pastor in the world. Pat Robertson and others get much more media attention, but Warren either controls or strongly influences tens of thousands of churches around the country through the aforementioned book and through his many church educational programs. It’s difficult to overstate Warren’s influence on some churches, especially the ones led by pastors who literally buy Warren’s sermons (complete with Power Point slide shows) from his web site and deliver them from their local pulpits. Other pastors don’t do this, but Warren remains a towering influence in their churches in one way or another. Warren is staggeringly influential, and I’m not commenting on what I think about that influence in this post, just noting how influential he is. And to the extent that he has endorsed anyone in the 2008 race, he has endorsed Mike Huckabee, as seen in that statement above. Google “mike huckabee rick warren” and you’ll see thousands of references on small blogs and chat boards to that statement that appeared on the Huckabee website back in November.

I’m not saying that that Warren statement is responsible for Huckabee’s rise. I am saying that the perception that Warren endorsed Huckabee has probably flown through many of the churches, most of which are Southern Baptist, that follow Warren’s lead most closely. That’s bound to benefit Huckabee. If I’m right about that, then Mike Huckabee is positioning himself to be the first Purpose-Drive president, and because of that he’s going to be very tough to stop in the GOP primary.

Fwiw, Huckabee himself is a Southern Baptist minister who ran his church ministry on Warren’s Purpose-Driven model. Warren’s purpose-driven politics tend to run left on economics to favor “compassion” over government frugality, right on social issues and preserve a steadfast ignorance on foreign policy. Sound familiar?

I could be wrong on the Warren-Huckabee connection. I don’t think I am, of course, but I could be. If I’m right, I just hope the evangelicals who are supporting him will take a cold, hard look at his actual record before vaulting him to the nomination.