The Ballad of Finis Shelnutt
They don't believe in mercy
Judgment on them is something that you'll never see - Bob Dylan
There are so many bad guys, it's good when they have easy names to remember.
Finis Shelnutt, for instance. Daniel Hopsicker is due much credit for first lifting this peculiar corner of American gothic and noting what crawled out. (Also, thanks to this thread on the RI discussion board for adding to the story.)
Shelnutt came to Hopsicker's attention when he popped up last weekend in a Katrina feature on Chris Matthew's Hardball year-end review. Coincidentally - hey, it happens - Shelnutt was also a principal source of the rumours of looters shooting police.
From the FoxNews transcript of the September 2 O'Reilly Factor:
O'REILLY: And on the phone from the French Quarter, 53-year-old businessman Finis Shelnutt, who's surrounded by looters....
You're on St. Louis Street. That's high ground in the French Quarter. No water in the street. But what's the looter factor there? How many of them are there and what are they doing?
SHELNUTT: Bill, it started off I guess the night after the hurricane the looting started. And the police were chasing looters a block away from me. And a couple of looters stopped and shot a policeman in the head - in the forehead and killed him.
Shelnutt continues, describing how he was trapped by the "human volcano" of looters, until a sympathetic O'Reilly says "we're going to get you help." Hopsicker found Shelnutt to be the source for at least two reports on FoxNews which spread the poisoning meme that looters were menacing citizens in zombie-like packs and shooting police.
Shelnutt seemed to turn up a lot post-Katrina. Here he is mixing a pot of jambalaya on the street September 25 in front of his Alex Patout's Louisian Restaurant. And five days earlier - not even three weeks after his Fox interview - there's this from Der Spiegel:
New Orleans - Finis Shellnut is wealthy and he isn't hiding it, even in the difficult times following the Katrina disaster. The 53-year-old real estate magnate sits in front of one of his buildings in the French Quarter, enjoying a chilled bottle of French champagne.
The man is a walking glitz machine, from the diamonds on his Rolex to his gold-framed glasses to the silver cross dangling on his chest under his half-open shirt. Shellnut is doing well these days, extremely well. He senses a lot of post-Katrina business coming his way. "Our party's about to get going again," he says. He sits next to a flyer depicting his face and advertising his phone number. "The storm destroyed a great deal," he says, adding, with a smile, "and there's plenty of space to build houses and sell them for a lot of money."
Shellnut wasn't particularly hard-hit by the storm and the flooding in New Orleans. "My real estate is in the city's better neighborhoods," he says, clearly pleased with himself, "a tree fell down here and there, but otherwise everything's just fine."
Despite all the chaos and destruction, the storm and the floods came with a silver lining for people like Shellnut. "Most importantly, the hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city," he says, "and we hope they don't come back."
Shellnut has even conjured up ancient Gallic legend to support his theory of Katrina's supposedly sanitizing effects. He says that the name "Katrina" once symbolized a kind of cleansing process that only leaves behind the purest elements of a society.
But that's not where we leave Finis Shelnutt. Hopsicker also recognized the name from Iran Contra drug smuggling and the Clinton's Arkansas Mafia. "His real claim on notoriety," writes Hopsicker, "came when he was identified as the man who picked up the duffel bags filled with cash dropped by CIA Drug Pilot Barry Seal at the Triple S Ranch near Hot Springs, Arkansas. An estimated $9 million per week fell out of the sky."
Terry Reed's Compromised, which details the bonds of crime and deep politics between the Bush family, the CIA and the Clintons, has much to say about Shelnutt. In the 1980s he was the son-in-law of Seth Ward, owner of the Triple S Ranch, which made him the brother-in-law of future number three man in the Justice Department Webster Hubbell. The connections didn't end there. Shelnutt was also employed by Clinton's close associate Dan Lasater, whose company was in direct receipt of drug "tithes" from Seal.
A particular passage in Compromised describes a conversation between Reed and Seal, in which Reed suggests Ward was threatening to blackmail the agency for what he knew of the drug operation. Seal was surprised; he'd thought the Triple S Ranch was Lasater's, and had no idea Shelnutt also worked as Ward's "go-fer," in Reed's words. Seal's reported as saying, "I know this guy, Finis. He works for Dan as a bond salesman. Now ain't that interestin'." When a man like Barry Seal can be taken aback by someone's deep political pedigree, that's very interesting. And he soon had hopes of exploiting it. Later in the book Seal tells Reed, "when ya told me that Finis Shelnutt was the guy at the ranch [where the "green flights" dropped their money in Arkansas] dollar signs started dancin' in my head. I saw an immediate way to get some white stuff up some noses around Bill Clinton real fast."
But that isn't where we leave Shelnutt, either. Because in 1990 Finis married Clinton's former mistress Gennifer Flowers. They lived for a while in Denver, where Shelnutt was described as a "stockbroker," before turning to restaurants and real estate in New Orleans. (Here's the website for "Gennifer Flowers Kelsto Club," situated "in the heart of the New Orleans French Quarter.")
So where do we leave Finis Shelnutt? The Iran Contra go-fer, the former brother-in-law of Webster Hubbell and bagman for Dan Lasater who was so well-connected even Barry Seal was impressed, turns up on FoxNews lying about looters shooting policemen in New Orleans, and days later appeals to mythology in Der Spiegel regarding how the city had been "cleansed" of its underclass. And where do people like Finis Shelnutt leave us?
I was going to say that if America didn't exist, someone would have to invent it. But you know what? Maybe that's precisely what happened.