As John Ashcroft seeks confirmation by his former colleagues in the Senate, the nominee for attorney general cannot afford the slightest taint of extremism. His ultraconservative record on such issues as abortion, affirmative action and civil rights has already stimulated intense controversy. And opponents of his nomination have sharply questioned the Missouri Republican's racial attitudes because of his opposition to a Federal judgeship for African-American jurist Ronnie White and his endorsement of the Southern Partisan, a racist, pro-Confederate magazine which has praised the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Now Ashcroft has been asked to explain why he met last fall with Thomas Bugel, the president of the militantly racist Council of Conservative Citizens and a veteran leader of segregationist groups in the St. Louis area.
In the midst of his hard-fought, unsuccessful Senate reelection campaign, Ashcroft sat down with Bugel at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport on September 22. Their meeting took place only weeks before Ashcroft's Democratic opponent, Governor Mel Carnahan, was killed along with his son and campaign manager in a plane crash. Bugel wanted to talk with the senator about the case of Dr. Charles "Tom" Sell, a local dentist under indictment for plotting to murder an FBI agent and a federal witness. Over the past two years Bugel and other leaders of the white supremacist group have been agitating for the release of Sell, a longtime CCC member who has advertised his dental services on Baum's local radio program.
They have succeeded in getting Ashcroft, Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., and other legislators to write letters to the Justice Department seeking an investigation of the unusual circumstances under which Sell has been held in federal custody for most of the past three years without trial. "As is typical in these types of cases, the senators made inquiries to the appropriate federal agencies for more information and that information was all sent to the federal bureau of prisons," said Bush transition office spokeswoman Mindy Tucker.
According to Tucker, the meeting between Ashcroft and Bugel ended after "approximately 10 minutes." Tucker said that the then senator took no subsequent action on the Sell case. She said Ashcroft "would not have met with [Bugel]" if he had been aware of Bugel's affiliation with the CCC.
Yet that denial isn't fully credible, given Bugel's longtime prominence as an agitator against racial integration in Ashcroft's home state, where the CCC maintains both its national headquarters and an active local chapter. Bugel is no obscure figure in St. Louis. Between 1987 and 1993 he led a white militant faction on the city's school board, fighting against implementation of a judicially-ordered busing plan. During that period, when urban school integation became the hottest political issue in Missouri, Ashcroft served as state attorney general and governor.
These days, however, Bugel's cause célèbre is the strange matter of Dr. Sell, a dentist whose friends (and former patients) include Gordon Baum, the "chief executive officer" of the national CCC. In May 1997, the dentist was arrested in his office by FBI agents on charges of Medicaid fraud. Later that year, the FBI was approached by a St. Louis couple who made a stunning accusation against Sell and his wife Mary. They claimed that the Sells had tried to hire them to murder both the FBI agent who had arrested Dr. Sell and a former employee of the dentist who was the chief witness against him in the fraud case.
Expanding its investigation, the FBI secretly taped six hours of conversations between the Sells and the other couple that winter. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter who later listened to those tapes described them as "incriminating." The Sells were indicted for murder conspiracy in April 1998, and Mary Sell later pled guilty and implicated her husband in the alleged plot.
More than two years after his indictment, however, Tom Sell has yet to come to trial. During most of that time he has been held in a federal prison hospital in Springfield, Mo. The U.S. attorney in St. Louis says that psychiatric examinations of the dentist show that he is mentally ill and therefore unfit to stand trial.
But Dr. Sell, who insists he is both innocent and sane, has refused medication with anti-psychotic drugs that the government believes would make him fit for trial. During this lengthy legal standoff, Dr. Sell and his supporters have accused prison guards of "torturing" him with beatings, scalding water and long periods of shackling.
While the CCC hasn't officially taken up Dr. Sell's cause, its leaders have lobbied Missouri's Senate and congressional delegations on his behalf, according to Baum and Bugel. "We as an organization have never made any efforts to be involved in Dr. Sell's plight," insists Baum, who said that the government's treatment of the dentist has been "obscene." The CCC chief also says "everything has been done by individuals, and they've probably kept the CCC out of it."
Nevertheless, members of the St. Louis CCC chapter are actively involved in promoting Sell's cause. A Dec. 22 "news update" on the chapter's Web site welcomed Ashcroft's nomination in late December with an item headlined "Our Ship Has Come In." The same article went on to suggest that the prospect of Ashcroft as attorney general meant that "the whole tragic sequence of the Carnahan plane crash seemed to have a Higher Purpose."
That article also noted that Dr. Sell's friends had gotten Ashcroft to help the dentist, but added that "those efforts had to be put on the back burner when his 2000 reelection campaign for Senate began." Ashcroft's providential ascendancy, according to the article, "will likely mean that some time soon after Jan. 20, the Feds will drop any efforts to indict" Dr. Sell. (Actually, he is already under indictment; the writer evidently meant that Ashcroft would drop the charges against him.)
There is no proof that Ashcroft promised anything to the CCC, an organization that was denounced by his campaign last year during the controversy over the senator's interview in the Southern Partisan. Despite the pro-Confederate views he expressed in that interview, Ashcroft has taken pains to dissociate himself from the kind of racist and nativist positions taken by Baum and Bugel.
Ashcroft probably remembers the acute embarrassment suffered by his Mississippi colleague, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and Georgia Rep. Bob Barr, when their connections with the group were exposed during the president's impeachment. Both Lott and Barr claimed that they had been unaware of the CCC's racism when they met with the group's leaders -- an alibi that few took seriously.
Ashcroft's apparent claim that he didn't know about Bugel's ties to the CCC strains credulity. As both governor and attorney general, Ashcroft took a strong stand against the "judicial despotism" of court-ordered school integration in St. Louis at a time when Bugel led the local opposition to busing. When Missouri legislators tried to increase black representation on the city school board by mandating district elections, Bugel opposed the bill and Ashcroft vetoed it.
During that era, Bugel's leadership of the Metro South Citizens Council, a local offshoot of the CCC, was heavily publicized in the St. Louis media. The CCC's ties to Southern segregationist groups and individuals, including Louisiana racist David Duke, also got copious coverage. Bugel and his clique were prominent supporters of Patrick Buchanan's insurgent candidacy in the 1992 Missouri caucus, when Ashcroft was backing incumbent President George Bush.
So it does seem unlikely that Ashcroft didn't know who Bugel was when they met last September to discuss the Sell case. And it seems curious, too, that a tough anti-crime politician like Ashcroft, who has rarely if ever spoken out on behalf of criminal defendants, would suddenly manifest concern for a man accused of conspiring to murder a federal agent. He still has some explaining to do.