By Terrence McCoy
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"I'm a felon," Clark admits.
A white-haired, gregarious man with a pressed gray suit and a large gold ring on his right hand, Clark was once a rising star in Arkansas politics. From 1986 to 1990 he served as the Arkansas attorney general under Gov. Bill Clinton. Once seen as Clinton's heir apparent, Clark destroyed his political career in 1990 when he was convicted of felony theft-by-deception after using a state-issued credit card to pay for a lavish lifestyle that included an occasional $80 cognac.
Now the Arkansan has reinvented himself as a law school professor thanks to another former attorney general: Florida's top cop from 1986 to 1998, Bob Butterworth, who is dean of St. Thomas's law school. And Butterworth has made sure Clark's questionable past isn't disclosed to students. The professor's short biography, available on the school's Website, does not mention his felony conviction. What's more, Clark is among a cadre of Democratic cronies that Butterworth has brought to St. Thomas since becoming dean three years ago. The others include former Deputy Attorney General George Sheldon and Assistant Deputy Attorney General Cece Dykas. In 2002 Sheldon ran unsuccessfully for the Florida Democratic Party's attorney general nomination.
A 59-year-old with Southern charm and a big smile, Clark points to photographs in his office at St. Thomas on a recent afternoon. One of his favorites is in the corner. Wearing athletic shorts and T-shirts, he and Bill Clinton stand next to each other in the Oval Office. "We jogged one day," Clark says, remembering the story behind the photo. "I always say, öHe's the tall, fat guy. I'm the short, fat guy. We both have been to McDonald's a few too many times.'"
The son of farmers in rural east Arkansas, Clark met Clinton at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville. Clark was an assistant dean, Clinton a law professor. "We became fast friends," Clark says.
In 1986 Clinton ran for Arkansas governor. Clark joined him on the Democratic ticket as a candidate for attorney general. Both were in their thirties. They became the youngest men in the nation to hold their respective offices.
Like Clinton, Clark was known as a fun-loving playboy even though he had argued eight cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. "He was a dandy," remembers John Brummett, a longtime political columnist in Arkansas. "He was a political up-and-comer, probably the likeliest person to succeed Clinton. Clark would wear a Panama hat and drive around Little Rock in a convertible. He was very much a man about town."
That way of life was expensive for Arkansas taxpayers. In 1990 the Arkansas Gazette reported Clark had spent $115,000 on meals and trips in 1988. A subsequent state audit found $28,564 in inappropriate charges.
At first, Clark said the expenses were justified and offered a list of people with whom he'd dined. But Arkansas prosecutors indicted Clark in July 1990. "I am innocent of the charge that has been filed against me," Clark told reporters at the time.
But the evidence was convincing. Dozens of people on Clark's list, including judges and state officials, testified at the October 1990 trial that they hadn't eaten with the attorney general on the days he specified.
A jury agreed but was lenient, ruling he'd spent less than $2500 in state money. On November 1, 1990, he was convicted of felony theft. Clark, however, avoided jail time and was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine plus court costs. He also surrendered his Arkansas law license.
Soon the former attorney general was broke and in the crosshairs of the IRS, which alleged he had filed incomplete tax returns from the late Eighties to early Nineties and owed $214,000 in back taxes.
Clark tried to rebuild his life and finances, accepting a job in 1994 in Brunswick, Georgia, as a corporate executive for ABC Home Health Care. One year later, Robert J. and Margie B. Mills, the husband-and-wife owners of ABC, were convicted of Medicare fraud after having billed the federal government for, among other expenses, $84,341 in gourmet popcorn and $3554 worth of liquor for a management meeting. Clark, who was not implicated in the fraud, testified in court against the owners.
Following another unsuccessful stint with a company in the healthcare industry, Clark moved to Texas, where felons can practice law, and filed bankruptcy in 1994, claiming $162,614 in debt and about $8000 in assets. Through the bankruptcy, Clark discharged the $18,484 fine he owed Arkansas taxpayers. (He later paid it anyway.)
Clark claims his hubris and drinking problem ballooned while in office, and it took him more than a decade to put his life back on track. "I let my ego get out of check," he says. "I wanted to be a big dog. I wanted to be somebody important.... It's easy to be seduced in public office, seduced into believing that what you're doing is important and that you are the only person who can do it."
In 2004 Brummett, the political columnist in Arkansas, received a call from Clark. He hadn't heard from the former attorney general in more than a decade. "He wanted my forgiveness," Brummett remembers. The call was odd, Brummett thought. Clark didn't have a reason to apologize to him. But then Brummett heard from others in Arkansas. Clark had asked for their forgiveness as well.