WND battles Gore cronies
Geoff Metcalf interviews courageous Tennessee reporters

Editor's note: From early September 2000 through Election Day, WorldNetDaily published a stunning series of investigative reports exposing corruption involving Al Gore, family members, friends and fund-raisers. Although the series has been credited by some with causing Gore to lose his home state of Tennessee, a more tangible price for publishing the series has been the $165 million defamation lawsuit filed against WorldNetDaily.com, the reporters involved, and others.

By Geoff Metcalf

Metcalf: This is a fascinating story -- the fact that Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee. I remember when I first read the stories, one line really stuck out to me -- it was that Al Gore didn't lose Tennessee; Tennessee lost Al Gore.

Hays: I remember the line you are referring to. One of the things the Republicans have tried to say in terms of Gore losing Tennessee was that that was proof that Tennessee was becoming more of a Republican state. But that's not really the case. Tennessee has always had conservative values and it has traditionally favored the conservative Southern Democrats -- at least when they were conservative Democrats.

All you have to do is look at the congressional races in 2000 and see. In every district where there was a Democratic incumbent, they were re-elected, and they all also out-polled Al Gore, which is sort of unusual. Usually the presidential candidate should be leading the ticket for them. But what I take that to mean is that Tennessee didn't reject the Democrats; they rejected Gore.

Metcalf: When you guys started reporting this stuff, was the blowback immediate or was it cumulative? I'm talking about the negative reaction you were getting from the hard-core Gore supporters -- or did they even realize this was going on?

Hays: They realized it was going on as early as April of last year. At that point in time, Charlie came down here. I actually live in Savannah in Hardin County, Tenn., and Charlie's mother also lives here, which is sort of how Charlie and I got together on this. We went around and interviewed all the principals as early as April 2000. So they knew what we were up to, but the fallout didn't come until we actually started publishing articles. The fallout started with the very first piece that we did, which was on Gore's Uncle Whit LeFon that ran in Accuracy in Media Report out of D.C. From that point on it was a tug of war for the rest of the election.

Metcalf: How real is this claim that you guys cost Al Gore the presidency?

Thompson: It is conceded in circles in Washington that that's what happened, that Florida never would have amounted to much had he won Tennessee, and Tennessee being such a critical state because it was his home state. It's where he moved his headquarters.

Metcalf: If Gore had won Tennessee, he would have had 271 electoral votes, right?

Thompson: That's right. He would have won. The last presidential candidate to lose his home state was George McGovern, which wasn't much of a contest with Richard Nixon, so it was a humiliation. I don't think a presidential candidate out of Tennessee -- James Knox Polk, Andrew Jackson -- has ever lost his home state.

Metcalf: At what point did the Democrats get hip to the fact that this enterprising reporting you guys were doing was having a significant negative impact on them?

Thompson: At the end of the summer, because the polling data started coming in. The [Nashville] Tennessean is a very pro-Gore paper. I used to work for it. I worked for it before Gore did. The Tennessean blocked us out. But it started running polls that showed Gore was dramatically slipping. And then he wasn't coming back to the state. He moved down there to get out of Washington so he would have a chance in middle America.

So here's a guy who is losing his home state, and he knows it by reading his hometown newspaper. When Al Gore was born, they put that on the front page of the paper because of his father. Most of this goes back generations. But they knew it in early August.

Metcalf: Did they do anything at all to try to mitigate the harm you were doing to their campaign?

Thompson: Yeah. It was Mickey Mouse. Here they had the national director of public relations, the same as Bush had in Austin, and all this guy was doing was going around the local television stations calling us a couple of right-wing commies. They mixed their metaphors. They wouldn't offer any specifics, but they would scare them. Everybody in the state, even with the polls going down, was afraid. The media was afraid that if they got on the wrong side of Gore, they would get hurt.

Then it escalated to the point where the death threats on Tony started. For some reason, they didn't make any on me. They had a highway patrolman in uniform that would come up in front of his house at night and watch the guy. People would say he'd be found face down in the river. He had a bullet hole in the front of his house. It reached way beyond being just partisan politics into being criminal activity as far as I was concerned.

Metcalf: Did you guys take any kind of measures to protect yourselves physically?

Thompson: Yes. Tony has some friends who are honest law enforcement, and they went out and talked to some of these guys. I took it upon myself to talk to a few of them, too, and told them that if something happened to Tony, I'd answer them in kind. I live in Virginia, outside of Washington. If a Washington Post reporter were threatened by a major political candidate, it would be front-page news in both Washington papers and in Richmond and Norfolk papers. The governor would have the head of the highway patrol ... and a grand jury would convene the next day. And that just didn't happen.

Metcalf: Is that a function of the pervasiveness of the control that the Tennessee underworld has?

Thompson: WorldNetDaily called them the "underworld." I thought they were the "overworld." You're talking here judges, prosecutors, head of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, some members of the Highway Patrol, people who were capable of giving Al Gore hundreds of thousands of dollars. And we were not just playing with Gore. We were also playing with this apparatus where if you get in trouble, if your methamphetamine factory blows up, you don't get arrested. We were talking not only the state apparatus, but we were talking about the federal apparatus, too -- three U.S. attorneys and, at the time, I rated only one of them moderately honest.

Metcalf: There were 18 separate pieces in the series you wrote?

Hays: It was at least 18, and we've thrown in six or seven more since then. At one point I remember David Kupelian, the managing editor at WorldNetDaily.com, telling me he had counted it up, and we had done something like 45,000 words.

Metcalf: Keep going and you'll get a book out of it.

Thompson: We've already got one. We've got a final chapter that will knock everybody's socks off.

Metcalf: I have to ask you about this local businessman and Democratic Party activist Clark Jones. He files a $165 million libel suit against WorldNetDaily and you guys. I was once sued for slander for $500,000, and I remember being shocked and rattled by it at the time. What was your reaction when you got the little blue piece of paper?

Thompson: I had a billion dollar lawsuit back in 1980 that they ended up settling for me promising not to sue them.

Metcalf: OK, so yours is way bigger than mine.

Thompson: We had sort of halfway been expecting to see something like this. We thought perhaps it had all blown over. Clark Jones, through his attorney, Houston Gordon, in December had demanded retractions of a number of different allegations in our stories, but their only substantiation or rationale for the retraction was that it just wasn't true. They didn't attempt to tell us why we were wrong or how we were wrong, just that we were wrong.

Metcalf: Are there any substantive factual errors in your reporting?

Thompson: No. Libel is the dumbest thing in the world. Suicide makes more sense. Because you open yourself up to things that were not published and anything is admissible. If you get charged with armed robbery, you only get into whether you did it or didn't do it. If you get into libel, you can bring in anything. And there are people coming out of the woodwork so fast on this guy it's not even funny, with things we either knew parts of or didn't know, and all of that gets into the record.

Metcalf: He claims personal embarrassment and humiliation as a result of the articles.

Thompson: He also claims he suffered mental anguish and that his mental health has gone down, which is a hoot. Any libel lawyer or First Amendment lawyer will say never claim that, because then you'll have to go in for psychiatric examination and all the rest of it. This is not a professional lawsuit.

Metcalf: Notwithstanding that, the fact of the matter is, you guys and WorldNetDaily are getting sued for $165 million, and that means Joe Farah is going to have to hire lawyers.

Thompson: Right. You pay money anyway.

The guy that is Jones' lawyer [Houston Gordon] was involved in the Clinton campaign. My contention is that he was conspiring with Jones and others to neutralize us. He was the former chairman of the Democratic Party in Tennessee, ran for senator and got his clock cleaned by Fred Thompson. So you have an absolutely political suit.

Metcalf: Give us some background on Jones.

Hays: The Jones family came to this area probably 40 years ago from a county north of here. The father opened up a car lot in the late '60s / early '70s, and then their father mysteriously died. His wife, Joanne, took over the car lot and ran it essentially until Clark and his brother Charlie were old enough to take over, which was about 1979 or 1980. According to all the information we have, Clark didn't get close to Gore until '84, when he made his first run for the U.S. Senate.

What allegedly brought them together at first was their common interest in cattle. Clark is a big cattle rancher, so to speak, at least as big as you can be for Tennessee. He became increasingly more involved in Democratic state politics. He served as state treasurer of the Democratic Party for a term -- I'm not sure exactly how long. But his lawyer, Houston Gordon, was chairman of the party at the same time Clark was the treasurer. President Clinton appointed Jones as a member of the White House Conference on Small Business in 1995. In fact, Gore spoke to a meeting of that group and pointed Jones out specifically as one of his personal friends. The Gore campaign lauded Jones for his raising more than $100,000 for the 2000 election. Jones served as the treasurer of Tennessee Democratic Victory 2000.

Metcalf: What I don't understand is, it would be one thing if they were to have sued you guys last July in an effort to pre-empt publication of articles, to put pressure on you, to try to slow things down. But the horse is already out of the barn, guys.

Thompson: It's pride. It's pride, and there's more to it. After the father died, Jones and his brother and mother moved in with one of the biggest methamphetamine dealers in all of Tennessee and also a hit man. When he wasn't in prison, he lived in the household. He hung around the car lot. The least you can say is there was multi-guilt by association. Their car lot was burned down, and the state reports all said arson and that this fellow was the only suspect.

Here's a guy who is the cock of the walk, and if you needed a permit from TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), he could talk to somebody. It might help; it might not. He went to the businessman's luncheon of a town of about 6 or 7,000 and bragged about his connections.

Metcalf: What has been the reaction of law enforcement in Tennessee to this lawsuit?

Thompson: It's in flux right now. You've got a brand new Justice Department putting U.S. attorneys in place and rotating heads of agencies like the FBI. Other than Harry Daugherty, who was Warren G. Harding's attorney general, Janet Reno is right up there. There is hope in the federal part of it, but on the state part, it is pretty dismal. Larry Wallace, who heads the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, has turned it into a politicized cult answerable to himself. There's even talk about one of the fellows we wrote about who blocked drug investigations because he was the state safety commissioner.

Metcalf: So instead of any of these guys being investigated and having charges brought against them, they are getting promoted?

Thompson: In the state, yeah. And under a Republican governor. I know that sounds crazy, but I think when three U.S. attorneys get in office -- they are pretty well aware of this stuff -- I think you're going to see some changes. I just can't imagine things being the same. But on the state level, things are as they were. We've got to say we couldn't have done this thing without the help of a lot a real, real honest law officers all over that state.

Metcalf: What's the deal on TBI Deputy Director Ed Holt?

Thompson: I don't know how to play Holt. He's a good guy/bad guy. I've got a friend that used to be his boss when he was an assistant U.S. attorney who says he's a good guy, but you hang around the wrong people too long, and who knows? But at least he told me the truth. And we have filed kind of a state FOIA. They have a thing called the Tennessee Open Records Act, and we got our hands on a lot of TBI internal memos and that kind of thing. Holt was definitely the most objective and most truthful of all of them in talking about our investigation and his contact with us. There were some out-and-out blatant lies in some of those internal memos.

Metcalf: Larry Wallace, the head of the TBI, seems to think you guys have some kind of vendetta against him to destroy him personally.

Thompson: I never knew him. I used to work with the TBI a lot way back when -- going all the way back to the Buford Pusser days. My close friend was U.S. attorney in Memphis who got to be the deputy prosecutor for the Whitewater matter, and I had the highest regard for the TBI. I knew some of the past directors, and when Tony told me all this stuff about the TBI, I just didn't believe it. How would I have a personal vendetta against somebody I didn't even know and had a predilection not to believe that it was true? I think the man is morally bankrupt. Other former agents that worked with him when he was a young agent called him a "craven coward," and we ran that. If I were a law officer, I'd sue over that if it weren't true.

Metcalf: During Wallace's tenure at the TBI, normally they would jump in front of a microphone, isn't that right? Traditionally they would be anxious to provide some kind of press comment.

Hays: Oh, yeah!

Metcalf: So what has been their comment on this current situation?

Hays: The only thing they have released is that this whole thing was a vendetta of Charlie's and mine against Larry Wallace. But when asked the specific question as to whether they had ever had Clark Jones under investigation for narcotics trafficking, they have a really interesting answer. They "refuse to comment on the advice of counsel."

Metcalf: On the advice of counsel? But if Wallace could come to Jones' rescue ...

Thompson: ... But he can't! Because he would be deposed. And if he were deposed then he couldn't claim any privilege. We couldn't get all the records because they could say it is an ongoing investigation. It's a catch-22. If he went to [Jones'] defense, then everything would be open, and he would have to sit down there under oath. And since he'd been the subject of it, we could go into destroying evidence and killing investigations and helping his son in a murder. He can't do it, and that's why a lot of people that know Clark Jones think he is out of his mind for pursuing this thing.

Metcalf: The Tennessee Commissioner of Public Safety, a guy named Robert Lawson -- he told you guys some things and then someone sicced a private investigator on him to try to get him to recant his comments. Who hired the P.I.?

Thompson: We think Clark Jones did.

Metcalf: So what happened when they approached Lawson to get him to change his story?

Thompson: He basically had told them that every quote that we had attributed to him was true, and he said he would stand by them, and that if they approached him again, he would start dragging more skeletons out of the closet.

Metcalf: Now, that is the point I want to follow up on. In the wake of that quote, have you guys gone back to solicit more skeletons to be dragged out of the closet?

Thompson: We almost don't have time, because people are calling so fast with new stuff and we're having a hard time staying current. This guy Clark Jones was the cock of the walk. He used to pick up his phone and call the White House, and now he's nobody. But he still tries to treat people like he's a big deal. Lawson is a respectable guy. He's a former sheriff. He's a former state safety commissioner. And he's got some bozo who's a retired FBI agent who comes down there and tries to intimidate him. He just gives him the door.

Metcalf: Do you guys think this will ever get into court?

Thompson: No. But I think Tony and I and WorldNetDaily.com are going to file a slap-back suit. It's a modified civil-rights act which is popular on the West Coast and has been sustained through several federal circuits. It's used when somebody sues you frivolously, impedes your work and costs you money, when they do extraordinary things like stake you out, intimidate you, fire bullets at you.

I think I've got some journalism organizations in the Washington area that would be interested in doing it. You don't file it to get rich. If I file it, I'm certainly not filing it for $165 million. It would be just to cool the heels of people who abuse the system. I frequently lecture on libel/defamation, and I say it can be the last refuge of scoundrels. It's misused.

We gave Clark Jones every conceivable opportunity to refute the allegations that we had uncovered, and he never gave us anything that refuted those allegations. One time, he said he didn't know Larry Wallace, and we got a homicide report where he was a witness and Wallace was the investigating officer. I called him up and said, "Clark, let me read you this and refresh your memory." And he said, "Oh, yeah. I forgot all about that." But that's the last time he talked to us.

Metcalf: Wallace is still in control of the TBI, right?

Hays: Right.

Metcalf: Clark Jones, does he even have a car dealership anymore?

Hays: Yeah. He still sells cars.

Metcalf: Have the personal threats let up on you guys? I mean Charlie lives in Virginia, so he's out of town.

Thompson: I had one made just recently, and I live in Fairfax County. This guy, a process server, threatened bodily harm and served me the wrong papers.

Metcalf: These guys aren't really smart, are they?

Thompson: No. He opened my house, threw the things in and said, "You're served!" Now that's not good service anyway, but they were state rather than federal papers, so it didn't make any difference. Normally in Virginia, you serve it through the sheriff, and you don't have to take the papers if you don't want to. So they went to a D.C. company, and they sent a thug out. Basically, it was breaking and entering. They've got a criminal investigation going on right now.

Question: Can we anticipate a book on this situation?

Thompson: Yes, I think so. I think that's what WorldNetDaily is doing. I've got a story that Tony and I are working on that we'd like to put in that will put the whole thing in dimension.

Metcalf: So there will be additional epiphanies that have not yet been included in stuff you've written for WorldNetDaily?

Thompson: Yeah. I wrote an introduction earlier this year, and Tony wrote an ending. Now mine was considerably longer, but now I think his is going to be considerably longer. We'd like to finish that up and get it off, because there are a lot of people who didn't see it.

I think it is kind of historic when you think about a couple of guys working on an Internet site, working out of Tony's log cabin, having, as you say, arguably some impact on the presidential election.

Metcalf: If nothing else, it is extraordinary and significant that a sitting vice president lost his home state in a race for the White House. That's a big deal.

Thompson: To lose his home state was a real big thing, and I guess that's probably going into Clark Jones' thinking every time he talks to one of his former buddies and they say, "You idiot!"

Metcalf: I talked about this a lot because it was in WorldNetDaily.com, but sadly, this story didn't get a lot of traction nationally. It sure did in Tennessee, though, didn't it?

Thompson: It only did in some weekly papers. One piece in Insight Magazine. Basically, it was a lockout. I had meetings with Newsweek, three meetings with them. They were all set to go. Reader's Digest, ABC, where I used to work. Everybody was all ready to go, but they figured Gore was going to win and ...

Metcalf: ... And they were afraid of ticking him off?

Thompson: Yeah. Bush went through that dip, and everybody decided that Gore was the winner and nobody wanted to make him mad. This happened to me when I was at CBS the first time with Jimmy Carter, when he was in the White House and we had some great stuff on Billy Carter. The Bureau chief said, "I don't want to make a sitting president angry at me."