Associates of conservative philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife hired a private investigator to probe the personal life of a Cable News Network correspondent, after he reported on CNN that drug allegations against President Clinton were groundless.
The charges against Clinton were disseminated by the Arkansas Project, a four-year, $2.4 million campaign to investigate and discredit the president that was funded by Scaife.
The investigation of CNN's John Camp was conducted in fall 1996 by Rex Armistead, a former director of the criminal investigative division of the Mississippi Department of Safety. A file detailing Armistead's investigation of Camp was obtained by Salon. The file contained information about Camp's personal life and that of two members of his family.
In an interview with Salon, Armistead confirmed that he had investigated Camp, but would not reveal the identity of his client. According to sources who reviewed Arkansas Project financial records, Armistead and two law firms received more than $250,000 from Scaife to look into allegations that President Clinton, while governor of Arkansas, ordered state law enforcement authorities to protect the activities of a cocaine smuggling ring operating from a remote airport in the town of Mena, Ark. The charges against Clinton were found to be baseless by two federal investigations.
Camp was targeted by Armistead, according to documents and sources, after he reported in a CNN broadcast that the Mena accusations were based on erroneous information.
One of those contacted by Armistead during his investigation was Patricia Byrd, Camp's ex-wife, who is an assistant district attorney in Louisiana.
"He [Armistead] called me at home," Byrd recalled in an interview. "He wanted to ask me about John's personal life. I told him I used to be married to John, but not anymore. I told him that I probably couldn't be of any assistance.
"I said that I didn't know anything derogatory. I told him that I hold John in the highest respect. I said, 'I live in Louisiana and John lives in Atlanta. We've now been divorced for 12 years.' There wasn't much I could know. But still he persisted and kept trying to ask me questions."
After she spoke with Armistead, Byrd said, she called her ex-husband and told him of her phone conversation with the private investigator. Camp said that he called Armistead and left an angry message on his answering machine but the private investigator never called him back. Camp said that he had no idea on whose behalf the private investigator was making the inquiries.
A copy of Armistead's report on Camp later found its way into the files of the House Banking Committee's Mena investigation. A copy of the committee's file with the information about Camp was provided to Salon.
Dave Runkel, a spokesman for the House Banking Committee, confirmed that the committee had information in its possession about Camp. But Runkel denied that the information was provided by Armistead or that it was solicited by the committee. According to Runkel, the information on Camp came from Louisiana state police officials, who had brought a libel case against the reporter that was later dismissed for lack of evidence. Runkel said the personal material about Camp was included in court records from the libel case.
Runkel did acknowledge that committee investigators had spoken with Armistead on numerous occasions: "More than one of our committee staff spoke to him several times. But information for our investigation was gathered from hundreds of people. Mr. Armistead was not a primary source."
In an interview with Salon, Camp said, "The fact that a House committee would even accept any kind of investigative file on a reporter to discredit his information is outrageous. The fact that they wanted to investigate a reporter suggests a political agenda."
In a related matter, Salon has learned that associates of Scaife asked a second private investigator to obtain confidential telephone and credit card records in an effort to determine who might be providing information to this reporter for Salon. The effort began in May 1997, the sources said, and continued until only weeks ago. Sources said that Armistead was not involved in this effort.
The associates of Scaife were said to be concerned because this reporter was asking questions about an alleged financial relationship between individuals involved in the Arkansas Project and David Hale, a critical witness in independent counsel Kenneth Starr's Whitewater case. Scaife was unavailable for comment.
In addition, Armistead and William Lehrfeld, a Washington, D.C., lawyer also connected to Scaife, told this reporter they had viewed law enforcement files about this reporter, but refused to be more specific. During an interview, Lehrfeld said, "I think I have seen your name in an FBI file." When asked how he had come to see such a file, Lehrfeld said, "You can obtain FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act."