Rex Armistead (February 23, 1930 – December 24, 2013) was a private detective and former Mississippi state police officer and leading operative for the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, who was heavily involved in the Arkansas Project, a co-ordinated attempt in the 1990s to investigate former U.S. President Bill Clinton funded by conservative media billionaire Richard Scaife.
- 1 Career
- 2 Resistance to the civil rights movement
- 3 Involvement in the Arkansas Project
- 4 After the Starr Investigation
- 5 References
Early on a deputy sheriff in Coahoma County, Armistead worked as a Mississippi State Police officer for many years. In the 1960s, as head of the Mississippi State Highway Patrol, he was seconded to work for the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a state body that helped to maintain Mississippi's then legal racial segregation laws. He was selected to investigate the "Dixie Mafia" (a term Armistead apparently coined) by the then-governor of Mississippi John Bell Williams, in particular the mafia's narcotics and prostitution operations, although he had no powers of arrest.
After working undercover, he became Chief investigator of the Highway Patrol, during which time he was present at the Jackson State Killings, when Mississippi police opened fire on African-American student protesters at Jackson State College, killing two of them. He was one of the police witnesses who controversially alleged the presence of a student sniper, providing a pretext for the shooting. This allegation was dismissed by congressional investigation. Armistead then became Chief Investigator of the Bureau of Identification, and then director of the criminal investigation section of the Mississippi Department of Safety, before becoming Head of Mississippi State police.
Working against the Dixie Mafia
In 1976 he became director of the Organised Crime Strike Force in New Orleans. In an interview, he characterized the Dixie mafia as more ruthless than Cosa Nostra: "There wasn't a well from Mississippi to West Texas that didn't have a dead body floating in it. The big difference was the lack of ceremony. It was just 'I'm going to get rid of Ambrose today; I don't need permission; and I go out and do it.' As simple as that. And that's the end of Ambrose. It hasn't changed much either.".
Regional Organized Crime Information Center
On leaving the police, in the late 1970s he ran a non-profit crime-fighting organisation called the Regional Organized Crime Information Center in Memphis, Tennessee, which received $ 2.3 million-a-year grant from the Law Enforcement Assistance Agency to help local police and prosecutors track the movements of habitual felony offenders across state lines. Former Memphis police director E. Winslow 'Buddy' Chapman has said that he never found evidence of what the center did; Justice Department accounting officials have said records of Armistead's grant proposal and other documents no longer exist. The ACLU raised concerns that the center was spying on private citizens.
As a private detective
He later became a private detective "specialized in political dirty tricks on behalf of Republican candidates". Most notably he was involved in the smearing of Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Bill Allain, spreading rumors that Allain had had sex with three transvestites, a plot eventually uncovered by ABC's 20/20 program. Allain went on to win the election anyway. His expertise in organized crime led him to being hired to investigate (and solve) the organized-crime related murders of Biloxi judge Vince Sherry and his wife (and former city councillor) Margaret.
Resistance to the civil rights movement
Joe Conason notes that Armistead rose to be chief of Mississippi State Police under Governor John Bell Williams, "the last openly racist governor of Mississippi", and that "Armistead rose to power during an era of official terrorism and violent repression against black citizens and civil rights advocates". Former fellow anti-Clintonite David Brock has alleged that Armistead was involved in "white resistance to civil rights". In addition to his involvement in the cover-up in the Jackson state killings, as part of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, Armistead was involved in surveillance of potential threats to the existing segregated order. On one occasion he engineered the removal of a university campus security chief for trying to arrest a white student who had administered a beating to a black student.
Involvement in the Arkansas Project
According to documents recovered from the American Spectator, Armistead was paid at least $353,517 by the Arkansas Project. The Washington Post says that it is not entirely clear what services he provided for that money, although it has been established that Armistead was involved in promoting three key aspersions of the Arkansas project narrative - that Clinton had been protecting drug smuggling, that Clinton had himself used cocaine, and that he was implicated in the alleged murder of Vince Foster. Armistead provided results from his investigations into Clinton's alleged protection of a cocaine smuggling ring while Clinton was governor of Arkansas to the House Banking Committee. All allegations were judged by federal authorities to be without foundation.
Attempts to implicate Clinton in cocaine smuggling and use
Armistead was funded by Scaife to investigate rumors of Bill Clinton's involvement in helping cocaine runners in rural Arkansas. The substance of the allegation was that Clinton had turned a blind eye to cocaine smugglers operating out of an airport in Mena, Arkansas because a wealthy campaign contributor was said to profit from the illicit activity, and also because proceeds from the smuggling were allegedly funding a covert CIA operation. These rumors had originated earlier in the decade with talk radio shows in Arkansas funded by the conservative Citizens for Honest Government organization associated with evangelist Jerry Falwell. This organisation had also been involved in payments to witness in the Troopergate affair. Armistead travelled across North and South America purportedly gaining information, which he supplied to the House Banking Committee. Three federal investigations found that these allegations had no basis whatsoever. Under questioning, Armistead also misled Federal Drug Enforcement Administration officers twice about the source of his funds (which was Scaife), claiming alternately funding from the Republican National Convention (who later denied all contact) and from the House Banking Committee. David Runkel, House Banking Committee spokesman, admitted that they had met with Armistead on a number of occasions, but denied he was a primary source for allegations that they were investigating. Armistead's report also formed the basis for articles in the American Spectator.
Armistead also investigated allegations that Bill Clinton had once used cocaine himself, providing material for R. Emmett Tyrrell, editor of the American Spectator, who published the (unsupported) allegations just before the 1996 American election.
Vince Foster murder rumors
On July 20, 1993 in Fort Marcy Park, Virginia, Vince Foster, a Deputy White House Counsel during Clinton's first presidential term, was found with a gunshot to the head, a day after contacting his doctor to get treatment for depression. Several official investigations concluded unequivocally that the death was a suicide. However, as he was a law partner and friend of Hillary Clinton, it was alleged by a number of anti-Clinton conspiracy theorists that his knowledge of the Clintons' financial affairs (which the Whitewater theorists claimed would reveal their illegal dealings) had led them to have him killed. Former conservative journalist David Brock recalled being summoned to a meeting with Armistead in Miami, at an airport hotel. Armistead laid out an elaborate "Vince Foster murder scenario," Brock said – a scenario that he found "implausible".
Spying on John Camp
Armistead was also found to have been spying on CNN journalist John Camp, after Camp had reported that the Cocaine ring allegations against Clinton were groundless. The results of his efforts, a dossier containing information on Camp's private life and that of two of his family members, were passed to the Senate House banking committee. This was not the first time Armistead had spied on journalists; as part of his work for the Mississippi State Sovereignty commission he had placed television news commentator Howard K. Smith under surveillance.
Connections to the Starr Investigation
Salon reporters also discovered that Armistead had met several times with the head of the Starr investigation team in Little Rock, Arkansas, Hickman Ewing; some of these meetings were attended by federal agents, who have confirmed them. Ewing's association with Armistead went back many years; in the 1970s they had known each other and worked together when Ewing was a federal prosecutor in Memphis and Armistead headed a nonprofit crime-fighting organization there.
After the Starr Investigation
Investigating the death of Steve Kangas
When former military intelligence specialist turned progressive writer Steve Kangas committed suicide less than 60 feet from Richard Scaife's office in February 1999, Scaife hired Armistead, along with Richard Gazarik, a reporter from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (a newspaper owned by Scaife), to investigate the circumstances of Kangas' death. Kangas had been critical of Scaife on online forums including Kangas' own website Liberal Resurgent. He had accused Scaife of being head of a vast right-wing conspiracy, and of persecuting Bill Clinton, whom Kangas considered to be a moderate Republican. Kangas was found with a pistol and 48 rounds of ammunition. Armistead and Gazarik were investigating whether Kangas had been out to kill Scaife. They spoke to his family, reviewed his Internet postings, and checked both his apartment and place of employment. It has subsequently been claimed that Scaife's use of Armistead and Gazarik has fuelled conspiracy theories about Kangas' death.
Armistead v. Minor
In 2002, Armistead lost a libel case against the Mississippi journalist Bill Minor. In a 1998 regular "Eyes on Mississippi" column, Minor referred to Armistead's "odoriferous background in Mississippi, ranging all the way from head-bashing of black civil rights workers to concocting a bizarre homosexual scandal in an attempt to defeat a gubernatorial candidate." The column was ruled by an 8-0 decision to be "substantially true". Interestingly, this case was heard on appeal because a lower court had ruled that Armistead was "libel-proof, meaning that his reputation was so bad that defamatory statements could not hurt him more", a decision overturned by the appellate judge.
- "Whitewater Payoff Allegations Target Elusive Private Eye". Memphis Commercial Appeal. 28 May 1998.
- "Mississippi Commission's Files a Treasure Trove of Innuendo". AP. 18 March 1998.
- Dickerson, James L. (1998). Dixie's Dirty Secret: True Story of How the Government, the Media and the Mob Conspired to Combat Integration and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement. M.E. Sharpe. ISBN 978-0-7656-0340-1.
- Spofford, Tim (1989). Lynch Street: May 1970 Slayings at Jackson State College. Kent State University Press. ISBN 978-0-87338-371-4.
- Katagiri, Yasuhiro (2001). The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission: Civil Rights and States' Rights. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-57806-388-8.
- "Behind the Clinton cocaine smear". Salon.com. 26 March 1998.
- "Joe Conason's Journal: Trent Lott's past -- and how that should affect his future". Salon.com. 11 December 2002.
- Evans-Pritchard, Ambrose (1997). The Secret Life of Bill Clinton. Regnery. ISBN 978-0-89526-408-4.
- "Starr deputy met with Scaife's private investigator". Salon.com. 20 April 1998.
- "Newspaper columnist did not libel former sheriff". Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. May 28, 2002.
- "Biloxi Confidential". TruTV.
- "'Arkansas Project' Led to Turmoil and Rifts". Washington Post. 2 May 1999.
- Carville, James (1999). ...and the Horse He Rode in on: People Vs. Kenneth Starr. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-684-85734-3.
- "The Falwell Connection". Salon.com. 11 March 1998.
- "Scaife investigator targeted CNN reporter". Salon.com. 17 April 1998.
- "Opening Remarks". Conference on Excellence in Journalism and the New Media, University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. 23 April 1998.
- Craig Jr., John (March 28, 1999). "Mission: Implausible". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 25 October 2010.
- Associate Press (March 15, 1999). "Scaife Probes Background of Suicide". Washington Post. Retrieved 25 October 2010.
- Leonard, Andrew (March 19, 1999). "A Vincent Foster for Usenet liberals?". Salon.com. Retrieved 25 October 2010.