Sunday, October 12, 2014

Bruce Bennett: chartering a disaster

Bruce Bennett and family. Source:

In a government career marked by corruption and harassment of civil rights groups, Bruce Bennett is somehow best remembered for his role in the debate over teaching evolution in schools.

The Arkansas state legislature crafted an anti-evolution law in 1928, making it unlawful for any teacher in the state's schools or colleges to include evolution in their courses. The law also banned textbooks featuring evolution and set a fine of $500 for anyone who violated the statute. Coming just three years after the fight over evolution in the Scopes Monkey Trial, backers of the bill said the legislation amounted to supporting the Bible over atheism and giving taxpayers control over what would be taught in schools. At the general election in November, voters overwhelmingly approved the measure with 108,991 in favor and 63,406 opposed.

The law was never strongly enforced, and attempts to repeal it were made in 1937 and 1959 as support for such fundamentalist measures waned. It wasn't until 1965 that the effort gained significant public attention. Susan Epperson, a high school teacher in Little Rock, became the plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the bill on the basis that evolution instruction was part of "the obligations of a responsible teacher of biology."

Bennett, the attorney general of Arkansas, was eager to take on the suit and even expressed his hope to disprove Darwin's theory during the proceedings. Maintaining the old argument that evolution promoted atheism and deprived the state's schools of choosing what they would teach, he asked, "Will our children be 'free' to choose their religion after their minds have been warped by anti-religious propaganda; or will they be forever captives of the Darwin theory, foisted upon them in their youth?"

Judge Murray O. Reed had no wish to see the state embarrassed by a Scopes-like circus more than four decades after that case. The case was scheduled to last only one day - April 1, 1966 - and the proceedings in the Pulaski County Chancery Court lasted only two-and-a-half hours. On May 27, Reed declared that the law was unconstitutional since it sought to "hinder the quest for knowledge, restrict the freedom to learn, and restrain the freedom to teach."

The ruling was subsequently overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court, then appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The justices upheld Reed's ruling in a 7-2 decision, saying the Arkansas law was unconstitutional since it infringed upon the First Amendment. Justice Abe Fortas said in the majority report that the right of free speech "does not permit the state to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma" and that the law essentially gave preference to the creationist view by "seeking to blot out" the conflicting scientific theory.

The case set a precedent for the legality of other anti-evolution laws, establishing that public schools could not be forbidden from teaching Darwin's theory as a way of upholding religious doctrine. Bennett's grandstanding and loss in the lower court also contributed to the loss of his office, which in turn led to revelations that he had used his office for corrupt purposes.

Bennett was born on October 31, 1917, in Helena, Arkansas. Four years later, he moved with his family to the small city of El Dorado and completed school. He studied pre-law at El Dorado Junior College and Third District Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Southern Arkansas) in the nearby community of Magnolia.

Bennett joined the Army in 1940 and remained in the military after the United States entered the Second World War. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1942 and served 14 months in Europe before returning to the U.S. for pilot training. For the remainder of the war, he would be a commander of a B-29 in the South Pacific. Bennett flew 30 missions over Japan, coming home with the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, and Air Medal with three clusters. He resumed his studies and earned a degree from Vanderbilt Law School in 1949.

Three years later, Bennett began his political career. He was elected as a Democrat to be prosecuting attorney of the Thirteenth Judicial District in 1952 and 1954. He was elected as the state's attorney general in 1956 and re-elected in 1958.

The emerging civil rights movement would find that they had no friend in Bennett. Little Rock became the focal point of a standoff between Arkansas state officials and the federal government in September of 1957, when a federal court ordered the school district to integrate in compliance with the Supreme Court's "Brown v. Board of Education" decision. Governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to prevent nine black students from entering Central High School. Stymied by his failed attempts to negotiate the issue with the recalcitrant governor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by federalizing the Arkansas National Guard and ordering the Army's 101st Airborne Division in from Kentucky to provide protection for the students and ensure order during the integration.

Bennett subsequently crafted several bills to harass civil rights activists, especially the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The measures prevented the NAACP from providing legal counsel or funding for lawsuits in the state and prohibited NAACP members from becoming state employees. With Faubus's support, Bennett also had the Arkansas NAACP's nonprofit status revoked in 1958 and banned it for nonpayment of taxes.

Six months later, Bennett went farther by accusing civil rights protesters and NAACP members of being "enemies of America" in league with an international Communist conspiracy. He ordered the organization's membership lists and personnel records to be opened for scrutinizing by state officials, then organized public hearings on the issue before the Arkansas Legislative Council's Special Education Committee. Bennett was so convinced that the civil rights movement was "riddled with Communists" that he appeared as an expert witness on the allegation in Tennessee and ran unsuccessfully as a segregationist for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1960, accusing Faubus of being a secret ally of NAACP state leader Daisy Bates despite Faubus's open resistance to desegregation.

Bennett remained popular enough that he was re-elected as attorney general in 1962 and 1964. He lost the primary to Joe Purcell in 1966, soon after his failed attempt to uphold the anti-evolution law. Ten days after taking office, Purcell set his sights on his predecessor by filing a lawsuit charging that the Arkansas Loan and Thrift had been selling securities illegally.

Bennett had helped found the AL&T in 1964, using the attorney general's office for the purpose. Along with used car dealer Ernest A. Bartlett Jr. and others, he incorporated the institute using a 1937 industrial loan charter from a defunct financial institution. The AL&T solicited investors for industrial development projects, luring people in with promises of high interest rates and deposit guarantees. In truth, the AL&T put investors' money into questionable developments while padding the accounts of the institution's officers. During his time as attorney general, Bennett held several shares in AL&T in his wife's name and collected regular legal fees from them. He also bought an inactive insurance company and sold it to the AL&T for $64,000; this organization was redubbed the Savings Guarantor Corporation and used to guarantee investors' deposits even though it was backed by no equity other than worthless AL&T stock.

The fraud crossed state lines, with Bennett and Bartlett taking a part in setting up a similar scheme in Louisiana. He made a hefty profit off the Louisiana Loan and Thrift, set up with the cooperation of Louisiana Attorney General Jack P.F. Gremillion, by borrowing $160,000 from the institution before canceling the debt by transferring his stock to another man. Between AL&T and its Louisiana twin, Bennett made some $200,000. He also used his official position to protect the AL&T from state regulation, issuing five secret opinions to state officials stating that Arkansas's securities laws didn't apply to the institution since it was operating under an old industrial loan charter rather than as a bank or savings and loan.

Purcell's suit sought to order the AL&T to stop representing itself as either a bank trust company or a savings and loan. Tom Glaze, a trial attorney in Arkansas during this time, recalls that this filing went nowhere because of a blatant conflict of interest in the Pulaski County Chancery Court. Claude Carpenter Jr., the business and law partner of the court's Chancellor Kay Matthews, enjoyed insider dealings with AL&T. The institute's founder, Ernest A. Bartlett Jr., even visited Carpenter soon after the filing and paid him a $23,000 retainer. Carpenter, who would be named a co-conspirator in the case, denied doing anything with the money other than fly to Las Vegas with Bartlett to gamble and chat with him about Arkansas Razorbacks football.

The cozy relationship stalled the matter for several months, with Matthews granting plenty of extensions. The delay finally prompted state officials to go over the court's head. Governor Winthrop Rockefeller had become the first Republican elected to the office since 1872 with his victory in 1966; his securities commissioner, Don Smith, appealed for help from the Securities and Exchange Commission. On March 13, 1968, U.S. District Court Judge John E. Miller ordered AL&T to be shut down and placed into receivership.

More than 2,000 people and two churches had invested over $4 million in AL&T. The investors would only recoup about one-quarter of what they had put into the fraudulent institution when its assets were liquidated. In one amusing exchange, a representative from the Booneville Lutheran Mission asked that the churches be the first to receive any recovered assets so they would be able to replenish their building accounts; the man explained, "This is not the people's money, this is God's money." In denying the request, Miller replied, "God should have looked after it a little better then." The AL&T was denounced as the "Arkansas Loan & Theft."

Bennett insisted that his only connection to the AL&T was that his wife briefly owned some shares in the institution. He was confident enough in his own chances of acquittal that he ran once again for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1968, although he finished a distant fourth. The investigation of the AL&T records soon uncovered his close connection with the institution, including the secret opinions on regulation of the AL&T.

In 1969, Bennett was indicted on 28 counts of securities violations, mail fraud, and wire fraud. Three other officers - Bartlett and brothers Afton and Hoyce Borum - were charged with the same crimes. Several other people, including Carpenter and some members of the Arkansas General Assembly, were named as unindicted co-conspirators.

Bennett was able to escape punishment because of his poor health, namely throat cancer. Bartlett would be convicted of some of the charges against him and receive a sentence of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. The Borum brothers would also be convicted, but receive shorter sentences. The charges against Bennett were dismissed on May 20, 1977, due to his ongoing health issues as well as difficulties in finding witnesses to testify against him. "I'd like to thank my friends and attorneys for their continued faith in me," he said after the court's decision.

Bennett died two years later on August 26, 1979.  

Sources: The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, Civil Rights Digital Library, National Parks Service, "Arkansas Battles to Save Ban on Darwin's Theory" in the Ellensburg Daily Record on Aug. 16 1966, Chronology of the Evolution-Creationism Controversy by Sehoya Cotner and Mark Decker and Randy Moore, Fulbright: A Biography by Randall Bennett Woods, The Arkansas Rockefeller by John L. Ward, Waiting for the Cemetery Vote: The Fight to Stop Election Fraud in Arkansas by Tom Glaze