From NBC's Amna Nawaz, Investigative Producer
Questions are being raised about then-Gov. Huckabee's 2004 decision to grant clemency to a repeat Driving While Intoxicated offender in Arkansas named Eugene Fields, despite the objections of a law enforcement official at the time. Documents obtained by NBC News reveal Fields' case was handled differently from any other DWI clemency or pardon granted by Huckabee, and some Republicans are now suggesting significant political contributions may have influenced the governor's decision.
In August 2001, Fields, of Van Buren, Ark., was convicted of his fourth DWI charge, a felony in the state of Arkansas, was sentenced to six years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Fields reported to prison in August of 2003.
But prison records obtained by NBC News show that six weeks into that six-year sentence, Fields' application for clemency, a commutation of his sentence the governor could issue to grant Fields an early release from prison, was unanimously supported by the parole board. Within months, Huckabee issued his intent to grant executive clemency to Fields, who was released from prison soon thereafter.
On Fields' application for a commutation of his sentence, four options are listed as possible reasons as to why the application was being made, including, "I wish to correct an injustice which may have occurred during trial," and, "I want to adjust what may be considered an excessive sentence." No boxes are checked on Fields' application; instead "N/A" is written across the top of the sheet, for "Not Applicable."
Rhonda Sharp, a spokeswoman for the Post Prison Transfer Board, was quoted at the time of Fields' release saying, "I've never seen anything like this before," and called the handling of the case "very unusual." This week, Sharp told NBC News that even though there is no set time period within which an inmate's clemency application must be considered, the process typically takes at least a few months to a year, before being sent to the governor's office. NBC News has no indication that Huckabee had any influence over the parole board's 2003 vote, which recommended Fields' sentence be commuted.
But the governor's ultimate decision to grant Fields an early release from prison was met with scrutiny from the media and others at the time. The Arkansas chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in a letter to Huckabee noted Fields had a history of re-offending, and "a track record of non-rehabilitation and of ignoring second chances."
When questioned by reporters about his decision to commute Fields' sentence, Huckabee said his decision was based on the parole board's vote. Today, in a statement to NBC News, the Huckabee campaign said Fields "deserved time in jail and received it." The statement went on to point out that Fields completed alcohol rehabilitation treatment, and that his prison sentence was reduced with "strong support from the community," and "to make room in an overcrowded system for violent offenders."
Supplementing Fields' application for clemency were tax receipts for donations totaling $1,120 made to the Salvation Army, one letter of thanks from the Arkansas Children's Hospital Foundation for a $2,500 pledge, and two more for donations made to a scholarship foundation and a Baptist Church charity.
But questions about the handling of Fields' case surfaced again in 2006 when he was convicted on another DWI charge, just two years after his release from prison. According to the police report, Fields drove into oncoming traffic on an Arkansas road and into the path of a police officer's car before crossing back into the correct lane.
Teresa Belew, executive director of MADD Arkansas, says that proves Fields should never have been granted clemency in the first place.
"Early release of an offender who has such a history only exposes the public to the likelihood of reoffending," Belew said, "which, in fact, happened in this case."
At that time, Huckabee was quoted as saying he was disappointed in Fields' actions. Today, his campaign said that after his relapse, Fields "received the maximum penalties." According to court documents, Fields paid an $800 fine and was released.
Documents recently obtained by NBC News now suggest that Fields' clemency case was handled differently from others with similar felony DWI convictions.
An examination of clemency records available in the Arkansas Secretary of State's office, provided to NBC News by MADD Arkansas, shows that in Huckabee's decade in office, only seven clemencies or pardons were ever granted for DWI convictions. NBC News independently examined those records.
Fields' case was the only one in which any objection was made by law enforcement, and disregarded by the governor.
Prosecutor Marc McCune filed an official objection at the time, "strongly" objecting to Fields being granted clemency, as did the sheriff from Fields' county, who suggested in his objection that Fields "should do his minimum" sentence. Not one of the other seven DWI convictions listed an objection of any kind, noting in each case that judicial and law enforcement officials "have raised no objections to applicant's request."
Fields' case was also the only one of those seven in which significant time had not passed between the time of the conviction, and the granting of the clemency or pardon by Huckabee.
One offender was 47 years old at the time of his conviction and was granted clemency "specifically for the restoration of firearms rights," at the age of 62. Another, who was convicted at age 41, was not pardoned until he reached the age of 58, at which point "all rights, privileges and immunities he enjoyed prior to conviction" were restored to him.
Fields was 62 years old at the time of his conviction; he was 65 when Huckabee commuted his sentence. That executive clemency made him immediately eligible for parole.
Some Arkansas Republicans are also questioning whether Fields' clemency was tied to sizeable political contributions.
According to Federal Election Commission records, a month after Fields' appeal was denied, his wife made a $5,000 donation to the State Republican Party in June of 2003. A month later, she made an additional $5,000 donation, again to the Republican Party of Arkansas. The following month, Fields reported to prison and began his clemency application process. He was a free man in less than a year.
A former elected official in Arkansas with fundraising experience for the State Republican Party says the timing of Mrs. Fields' donations raises serious questions about their intended purpose. He spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity and says he is not supporting any Republican presidential candidate at the moment.
"In the summer of 2003 there's no real political activity," said the former official. "It's always a tough time to raise money in those periods, and all of sudden $10,000 comes walking through the door when there's no campaign going on? There's no reason to give that kind of money then."
Prior to his wife's donations, Fields had made a $10,000 donation to the Republican Party of Arkansas in October of 2000 under "Fields Investment Company," the name of his business. Both Mrs. Fields' 2003 donations and Mr. Fields' 2000 donation placed them among the largest, individual donors to the Republican Party of Arkansas in those years, on par with donations from members of the Walton family, of the Wal-Mart department store chain. The only other donation made by either Fields to the State Republican Party was in the amount of $500 in August of 2004.
The Huckabee campaign today responded to questions on the matter, saying only, "There was no connection between the handling of any clemency application and any political donation."
A woman identifying herself as Eugene Fields' wife would not answer questions when called at home by NBC News and immediately hung up the phone. A voicemail left at that same number remained unanswered at the time of this publication.