Fred Thompson sought inspector's removal
Fred Thompson sought inspector's removal By ERIK
SCHELZIG, Associated Press Writer
29 minutes ago
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A Tennessee state inspector had
cited a coal company repeatedly for environmental
violations. Fred Thompson, the inspector says, got him
removed from the case.
It was one episode, early in the legal career of the
man who would go on to become an actor, a senator and
now a Republican presidential candidate. It still
resonates in his home state.
At the time of the 1980 case, Thompson was known for
fighting government abuse, first in the Watergate
investigation and later as an attorney for a Tennessee
woman wrongfully fired by the Democratic governor.
And he had political connections.
The state inspector, who was put back on the coal case
after the episode was publicized, told The Associated
Press in a recent interview that he believes Thompson
used his influence with then-Tennessee Gov. Lamar
Alexander, to have him removed.
Alexander now is a U.S. senator.
Thompson "hooked up with a company that was crooked,
but I guess he didn't know it at the time," said
former inspector Francis Baker, who retired from the
Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation
in 2006 after 28 years. "They were playing politics as
much as they could they'd go to the governor rather
than to anyone else."
In response, Thompson campaign spokeswoman Karen
Hanretty said Thompson was just doing his job. "Fred
was a lawyer representing a client, and I think he'd
be surprised to know he had so much political
influence," she said.
Alexander couldn't recall whether he had heard from
Thompson about the Carbonex Coal Co. when he was
governor, said Lee Pitts, the senator's spokesman.
In 1980, as a private attorney, Thompson represented
Carbonex, whose strip mines located near Dayton in
rural eastern Tennessee had been cited by Baker for
environmental violations, according to state records
viewed by the AP. Among the violations were mine waste
that polluted streams and inadequate cleanup of sites
after coal was mined.
In an April 1980 memo to his superiors, Baker then
27 years old listed violations at the Carbonex mines
and added that his descriptions "cannot express how
bad these sites really are."
"It is evident that this company willingly ignores
their mining plans, notices of noncompliance, the
department's designee and the state law," Baker wrote.
Carbonex officials complained vigorously to state
officials about Baker, demanding he be removed from
the case. Baker's superiors defended his actions,
writing in one memo that he was "to be commended for
keeping the pressure on."
Requests for removal of an inspector had "often come
up before with companies who have a tendency to
violate the law and regulations," Arthur Hope, then
assistant director of the state's surface mining
office, wrote in a May 1980 memo.
"Such changes, in my opinion, are diversionary tactics
to win a reprieve while another inspector is becoming
familiar with the operation, then the same tactics
will be tried again," Hope wrote.
In June, Thompson arranged for state conservation
officials to be flown to the mining sites on a
Carbonex plane to meet with company officers. Shortly
afterward, records show, Baker was removed from the
case and an order to cease operations was lifted
because state officials said reclamation work had
C.C. McCall, then director of the surface mining
division and one of the state officials who attended
the meeting at the mine with Carbonex officers on June
11, 1980, wrote a Carbonex executive in a letter two
weeks later that he had named a new inspector at the
mine even though he still considered Baker to be "one
of my finest inspectors."
The change was made "in an effort to start afresh and
adhering to your request for a new inspector," McCall
Thompson had close ties to Alexander. Both men were
proteges of then-U.S. Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee.
Thompson had served as Alexander's campaign treasurer
and then as legal counsel after he was sworn into
When the episode became public, there was a backlash
over inspector Baker's removal and he was put back on
the Carbonex case. The coal company ceased operations
in September 1980 after it was discovered it hadn't
paid severance taxes over its entire year in operation
and had failed to follow reclamation rules set by the
The following year, Carbonex's former president, John
E. Keller, was sued by the U.S. Commodity Futures
Trading Commission, accused of being part of a scheme
to sell illegal coal futures, according to court
records. Keller was banned from selling coal contracts
linked to future prices.
Baker says he was undaunted by Thompson's criticism.
"At that time, I hadn't been working but a year or
two, so I didn't have a lot built up to lose or
anything like that," Baker recalled. "And I'm pretty
stubborn, and truth is truth, and you stand to your
Thompson, in newspaper interviews at the time, was
dismissive of criticism that he had tried to use his
close relationship with Alexander to get a favorable
result for his coal client. "I can't quit practicing
law because I have some friends in the
administration," he told The Tennessean in Nashville.
Thompson also complained about negative media coverage
in a letter to the Department of Conservation, saying
the Carbonex mine had been singled out because of his
connections to the Republican administration.
"Mr. Thompson is just wrong about that," Brooks
Garland, a lawyer for the state's surface mining
division, responded to The Tennessean. "We have had
trouble with Carbonex ever since they came into
Baker said Thompson threatened to sue him "because I
had said they'd tell me one thing and then I'd go up
and just find out it was another lie."
"It was the first time I had ever gotten into anything
like that, where politics was actually playing a part
in it," Baker said. "But nothing really changed, and I
came out on top of every one of the issues."
Thompson's legal work has been deeply entwined with
his political ties dating to the earliest days of his
career. Indeed, Thompson, now 65, has attributed his
success to becoming involved in Republican politics
shortly after joining a law firm in his hometown of
Lawrenceburg, Tenn., in 1967.
He had been practicing law only a year when he managed
a Republican candidate's unsuccessful congressional
campaign against Democrat Ray Blanton.
The following year, he was hired as a federal
prosecutor in Nashville because he was one of the only
Republican lawyers working the state, Thompson told
the Nashville Bar Journal in 2003.
After three years in the U.S. Attorney's Office,
Thompson was one of the managers for Howard Baker's
re-election campaign. It was Baker, then the Senate
minority leader, who selected the 30-year-old Thompson
to become the top GOP lawyer on the Senate Watergate
Committee in 1973.
The role brought Thompson a measure of fame and a
reputation as a tough investigator. However, National
Archives' tapes of Oval Office conversations show
President Nixon and his attorney viewed Thompson as an
ally in their effort to discredit former White House
counsel John Dean. It was Thompson who tipped off the
White House that the Senate committee had discovered
the existence of the Oval Office tape recordings later
known as the "Watergate tapes."
In 1974, Blanton Thompson's adversary from the 1968
congressional contest was elected governor in a race
against Alexander. Three years later, attorney
Thompson represented Marie Ragghianti, chairwoman of
Tennessee's Board of Pardons and Paroles, against
Blanton, whom she accused of firing her for refusing
to go along with a cash-for-clemency scheme.
Thompson won Ragghianti's reinstatement and $38,000 in
back pay. The case became the subject of a Peter Maas
book and the 1985 movie "Marie," starring Sissy
Spacek. Thompson was cast as himself in the film a
role that launched his acting career.