An Agriculture Department soil conservationist in Arkansas is scheduled to go on trial next month on charges of conspiring to have his Forrest City house burned after he won a widely publicized racial discrimination case against the department.
Walter White Jr., a black who won a promotion to GS12 and a $30,000 award in the case, was indicted by a federal grand jury last month on 10 counts alleging conspiracy and mail fraud in efforts to collect insurance.
The trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 16 in the U.S. District Court at Little Rock, but White said yesterday that he and his attorney probably will ask for an extension to better prepare their defense.
"They've been trying to set me up," White said. "We have filed a number of motions and I feel that we will beat it. In fact, it may be thrown out before it even goes to trial."
The indictment at Little Rock followed a lengthy inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which entered the case after White said that he found a partially burned cross behind his $135,000 home in a wooded suburb of Forrest City. The fire badly damaged the house.
Local firemen said they did not see the cross, but the FBI became involved to determine whether White's civil rights had been violated. After a preliminary investigation, FBI officials said they found "no indication" of a role in the fire by the Ku Klux Klan or any right-wing paramilitary groups.
White said at the time that he believed the burning of his house was linked to his discrimination case against the Soil Conservation Service, which led to a department investigation of civil rights enforcement activities of its main agencies in Arkansas. The probe found widespread irregularities and recommended changes.
The 22-year veteran of federal service also complained in a 1986 interview with The Washington Post that state and local fire authorities as well as the FBI had considered him and his wife as suspects in the fire. "We're offended that the finger is being pointed at us," White said. White's wife, Effie, was not indicted.
The federal grand jury indictment charged that White had recruited John Henry Adams of Palestine, Ark., to set the house afire, with promise of a $1,000 payment. The indictment said that the house was sprinkled with gasoline and then set afire by Adams with a torch allegedly left behind by White.
White, who said he was away at the time, returned home after firemen had extinguished the blaze and discovered what he described as a small cross under a deck behind the house.
The indictment cited White and Adams for conspiring to cause the fire and White was additionally charged with eight counts of mail fraud, related to his dealings with the Farmers Insurance Group, and another count charging that he caused the fire to be set as part of a mail fraud ploy.
According to the indictment, last November White filed a loss claim for $233,000 with the insurance company. Then last May, the indictment charged, White offered through his attorney to settle the claim for $158,407. White allegedly received partial payments of about $22,000 in May.
A few weeks later, the indictment said, White gave Adams a $300 partial payment for his role in the fire.
White said yesterday that he had given Adams $300, but that the money was for services he had performed on rental properties owned by White in Forrest City. "It was not insurance money," White said.
He said that the $1,000 cited in the indictment was money that he had agreed to give Adams to help pay for a truck, also as payment for carpentry and other services.
Other properties owned by White, who was placed on administrative leave with pay by the SCS several weeks ago, have been involved in fires. A week after his house burned, a trailer that he rented was hit by fire, which local officials attributed to faulty wiring.
In 1982, a small nightclub owned by White in Marianna, a community south of Forrest City, was destroyed by fire. Firemen said they found no hint of foul play.