Classroom Felon

Smile if you're a felon

Steve Clark has about an hour before his class begins. He's one of the newest professors at St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami Gardens. And he's an expert on his subject: criminal law.

"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.

"That's when I realized what he was doing," Brummett says. "Seeking forgiveness from people you've wronged is one of the steps of recovery from alcoholism."

That year Clark petitioned Gov. Mike Huckabee for the third time to pardon him for his crime. Although the former attorney general taught an occasional class at South Texas College of Law in Houston, he couldn't persuade any law schools to consider him for a full-time position because of his felony conviction.

On February 19, 2004, Huckabee granted Clark's pardon. It was anything but unique. A former Baptist minister, Huckabee has used his ten years in office to pass out forgiveness like party favors. He has issued more than 700 pardons and commutations, including one to a convicted rapist named Wayne DuMond, who again raped — and then committed murder in Missouri after Huckabee's kind gesture.

Arkansas prosecutor Henry Morgan objected to clemency for the former attorney general. "Governor Huckabee has pardoned more people in his terms than [Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Missouri] put together, so I'm not surprised Clark got a pardon," he said.

But the measure helped Clark to re-enter the classroom in Florida. One year ago, Butterworth received at his St. Thomas office a call from Mike Moore, Mississippi attorney general. Butterworth, Moore, and Clark had served as attorneys general in their respective states at the same time. "He said Steve was interested in going back to teaching law," Butterworth remembers. "I had a need for somebody with his expertise [in criminal law]."

Butterworth hired Clark as a visiting professor at St. Thomas, where nontenured professors earn about $95,000 per year, among the highest rate in the Southeast, according to a recent salary survey. Clark is not eligible for tenure.

The American Bar Association, which accredits St. Thomas's program, does not prohibit felons from teaching law. Yet the clemency made Butterworth more comfortable with the hire. "He's the same person whether he's pardoned or not," Butterworth says. "The pardon alleviates a perception problem more than anything else."

Butterworth adds, "Steve had a problem in his life a number of years ago, and he dealt with it. He's dealing with it in a wonderful way, by giving back to the community. He's a great inspiration. He's open about the problem he's overcome."

Back in his office, Clark glances at a clock. Behind him, on a bookshelf, is a pillow that reads "Elvis" in fake diamonds and a copy of Clinton's 1008-page biography, My Life. Clark says he is willing to discuss his troubled past with St. Thomas students. "I tell everyone I'm the poster child of what not to do," he says. "I'm a felon. What I did was wrong. I don't rationalize it. I can't rationalize it."

Clark grabs his eyeglasses, stares at them for a few seconds, and then slips them into his breast pocket. "I have lived a blessed life," he says. "I really have. I don't have a complaint to make at all. But I didn't live all of that blessed life in the way I should have."

In his class later that afternoon, Clark discusses the death penalty and execution of the mentally disabled. The lecture has an underlying theme.


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