A Resurrection in Arkansas
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
You might say a story about former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker almost killed veteran investigative journalist Mary Hargrove of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Her medical problems may be a coincidence, but they could just as easily be attributed to the stress she endured while putting together a hard-hitting series about Arkansas' top political leader.
About two months after the Democrat-Gazette ran her four-day-long Whitewater-related series in August 1994 informing Arkansans that their popular Democratic governor was involved in helping to arrange $3 million in fraudulent loans, Hargrove literally dropped dead in her doctor's office. Her heart stopped cold, just as it would three times more over the next few months, the result of a rare and untreatable neurological condition. Though her heart restarted itself each time, Hargrove still has reason to be concerned about her health.
Comments from friends and coworkers such as, "If I were you, I'd be afraid to start my car," may have exacerbated her condition. Or it could have resulted from work-related pressure. After all, before she started working on the series for the Democrat-Gazette, she had lost her job when the Tulsa Tribune went under (see "When Your Paper Dies," December 1992), and was miserable in the new position she landed at the Miami Herald. She eventually quit, moving to Little Rock in February 1994. Six months later the series appeared.
"As far as I was concerned," she says, "after Miami, this was the make-or-break story of my career."
In the end, Hargrove, 46, triumphed over both her disappointments and her health problems. "The good news," she says, "is I haven't dropped dead in two years."
Hargrove's painstakingly detailed account of Whitewater as it related to Tucker eventually proved that her death-
defying efforts had been worthwhile. In August an Arkansas jury convicted Tucker of mail fraud and conspiracy relating to business transactions he conducted as a private citizen between 1985 and 1987. The same transactions also involved the now well-known names of Whitewater figures James and Susan McDougal and David Hale. Tucker was handed a four-year suspended sentence and was ordered to pay a $25,000 fine, make $294,000 in restitution and perform community service. His sentencing would have been even more stringent were it not for the fact that Tucker, 53, suffers from chronic liver disease. The judge presiding over his case concluded that the former governor might die if incarcerated.
Cowritten by fellow Democrat-Gazette reporters Michael Whitley and Don Johnson, Hargrove's series outlined much of the information that was eventually used by Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr to prosecute Tucker. Starr even once joked to Hargrove that he feared she would accuse him of plagiarism after he filed the indictment against Tucker.
Tucker was indicted on June 7, 1996, 10 months after the series ran. The time it took for the law to catch up to her reporting was trying for Hargrove, both physically and emotionally.
"At the time the series appeared people were stunned. I went a whole year with people not believing the story," says Hargrove, who has completed three other series since the one that brought down Tucker. "This is a very Democratic state. It's really a one-party state. People liked this guy and couldn't believe he'd done any of this. But once he was indicted, the whole tone changed."
Hargrove arrived at the Democrat-Gazette as an associate editor focusing on investigative projects. Executive Editor Griffin Smith jr. lured her away from the Herald with hopes of having her tackle Whitewater. Ironically, she resisted at first.
"We got all our files and Mary in the same room," says Smith. "She spent a month simply looking at the Whitewater documents. I remember her saying, 'This isn't about the Clintons as much as it's about Jim Guy.' We all sort of dropped our jaws and said, 'Jim Guy?' Then it was up to her to document what she suspected."
"What we found was all the stories up to that date were focusing on the Clintons," says Hargrove. "The nut graf of our story was, 'You are looking at the wrong governor.' I zagged one way when everyone else zigged the other. We didn't have any tips.... I figured I could look at one of the eight or nine subdivisions owned by Madison Guaranty and maybe find something in our own backyard."
The major discovery of her story, says Hargrove, came about through "dumb luck." It was by chance that the first subdivision she chose to analyze was Castle Grande, the subdivision that, as it turns out, was the source of the most questionable land transactions. "Between October 1985 and February 1986 this unimproved land's value went up dramatically, and nothing had happened to [it]. Jim Guy Tucker was in the middle of all of this," says Hargrove. "The national media has done everything to tie everything bad that happens in Arkansas back to the Clintons, but the Tucker conviction has nothing to do with the Clintons."
Hargrove still recalls clearly the day she broke the news to Smith. Only two months after her research began, she walked into Smith's office and boldly stated: "If we print this story we'll change the history of Arkansas."
Hargrove was right. For the first time in history a Democratic governor was convicted of a felony, and, for only the third time since Reconstruction, Arkansas has a Republican governor.###