"Durham DA has own trials" - John Sullivan, News & Observer (December 28, 1999)
When Jim Hardin campaigned for district attorney in 1994, he promised to reform the Durham County courthouse. He ran TV commercials showing a pin-striped lawyer wearing gold jewelry peeling off $100 bills, and a voice-over warning that lawyers in traffic court would continue to get rich if Hardin weren't elected.
But five years after he took office, the man who promised to end insider deals with politically connected lawyers is under attack for the cronyism he pledged to eliminate. Lawyers who are close friends of Hardin's say the district attorney gave their clients special deals, and one friend has testified that Hardin told him to put misleading information on a court document.
The district attorney also has been criticized by some who said he put his ambitions ahead of victims, letting them give tearful testimony at sentencing hearings when he already had cut sentencing deals. This month, the state Court of Appeals chastised him for violating a sentencing agreement with a defendant, and the appeals court said the defendant ought to get a new trial. Also this month, an association of black lawyers asked Hardin to respond to reports that he gave special treatment tohis friends.
Suddenly, Hardin the reformer, the military man who fancies himself the proper Southern prosecutor - tough on crime and fair with everyone - finds himself trying to prove he's not the bad guy.
Critics say he is part reformer and part old-school politician, a hybrid of the district attorneys for whom he has worked. They say he's a hard-driving lawyer who became embroiled in the system he tried to clean up, pulled back by vestiges of an old Durham network he couldn't leave entirely behind.
Supporters say he has done nothing wrong. Hardin is the victim, they insist, of friends who took advantage of his position and of prosecutors on his staff who abused their power.
"Jim is the kind of guy that every dad would want to marry his daughter and every brother would want to date his sister," said prosecutor Mike Nifong, who has worked more than 20 years for three Durham district attorneys. "He's a damn Boy Scout."
Wes Covington, one of Hardin's closest friends, helped raise money for Hardin and donated $500 to his campaign. But in September 1998, just two months before Hardin would run unopposed for district attorney, the State Bureau of Investigation started looking into allegations that Covington plotted to fix a drunken-driving case.
Covington, two of Hardin's prosecutors - Brian Beasley and Ralph Strickland - and District Court Judge Craig Brown were accused of disposing improperly of a DWI case in a back hallway of the Durham courthouse. The probe came as a shock to Hardin, his friends say, because he had hired Strickland specifically to watch over District Court.
After a weeklong hearing, the State Bar suspended Covington and Strickland. Brown is waiting for the Judicial Standards Commission to make a recommendation to the state Supreme Court in his case. Beasley received a reprimand.
Hardin was never implicated in the case, but at the State Bar hearing, Covington testified that Hardin told him to lie on a dismissal form in another case and gave him special consideration because of their long-standing friendship. Other witnesses said Covington regularly asked Hardin for special breaks, telling Hardin that defendants could help his campaign.
Those same witnesses said, however, that Hardin told Covington he hated being put in that position and questioned why he should care whether defendants could help him politically. Others testified that Covington exaggerated his influence with Hardin and occasionally made comments to impress other lawyers.
"There is a possibility that the amount of influence Mr. Covington had was in his own mind," said Orlando Hudson, senior resident Superior Court judge.
But even Hardin's friends acknowledge that Hardin should have been aware of Covington's reputation.
"I knew there was a tremendous gap between Wes' image of himself and the image of him as portrayed by the Bar," Nifong said. "Jim believes that everyone is as good-hearted as he is, and, to that extent, he can be taken advantage of by his friends."
And Woody Vann has said that he has gotten special access and that Hardin has thrown out speeding tickets for lawyers as a professional courtesy. Vann also said that Hardin might unwittingly punish lawyers who threaten his political career.
"Defense attorneys that feel like they don't receive additional treatment bring it upon themselves by pillorying Jim in the news media," Vann said in an interview this year.
"If he had any sense of right, he would step down," said Alexander Charns, a civil-rights lawyer who has tussled with the Durham police and Hardin's office over several cases. "You can't base the awesome power of the District Attorney's Office on friendship and cronyism."
"Mr. Hardin may have done favors for his friends, but those deals do not violate the law," said Hudson, the Superior Court judge. "Every district attorney does that; it's not an indication that Mr. Hardin is corrupt."
But Hudson added: "He [Hardin] may have also allowed people to get close to him that on second thought he would not, and he has changed that."
"He wanted to do this job out of love,'' Nifong said. "He's never wanted to live anywhere else. He has almost a romantic view of the district attorney's job. You almost wished it was the way Jim thought it was."