What we know about Steve Scalise attending a white power event

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La.,  the No. 3 Republican in the House, heads to the floor for a budget vote, on Dec. 11, 2014. (New York Times photo)
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the No. 3 Republican in the House, heads to the floor for a budget vote, on Dec. 11, 2014. (New York Times photo)

How Rep. Steve Scalise, the third-ranking Republican in the House, came to speak at a white supremacist rally in 2002 —  or right before it — remains a confusing controversy as Congress returns for its new session on Jan. 6.

Conflicting accounts and the fog of time have all clouded the events of May 2002, when the European-American Unity and Rights Organization held a conference in the New Orleans area. The group, identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group with anti-semitic and racist writings, was headed by David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and prominent Louisiana politician.

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Readers first tipped us off to Scalise’s alleged involvement with the Duke group on Dec. 29, 2014, hours after a Louisiana blogger first broke the story. Later, Scalise, a Louisiana Republican and House majority whip, admitted, to a degree, that he spoke at the rally, though he also said he doesn’t remember doing so and denounced the group. An organizer for the event now says Scalise didn’t even attend. So far, we’ve found no videos or photographs from the event.

Republican leaders have stood by Scalise, and he isn’t in danger of losing his leadership position when the new Congress begins. Amid the news reports, though, we continue to receive questions from readers about what exactly occurred. In that light, we decided to explain what we know.

The blog post

On Dec. 28, liberal Louisiana blogger Lamar White, Jr., posted a story alleging that Scalise was an "honored guest" at the European-American Unity and Rights Organization conference held at a Best Western in Metairie, La., on May 17-18, 2002. The event was dubbed as an "international workshop" to support civil rights for Euro-Americans (a.k.a. white people), according to promotional material published by White.

The source for the blog was a semi-anonymous post on a forum through Stormfront.org, a white pride website. According to a recap of the event posted May 21, 2002, Scalise, then a state representative, "discussed ways to oversee gross mismanagement of tax revenue or ‘slush funds’ that have little or no accountability. Representative Scalise brought into sharp focus the dire circumstances pervasive in many important, under-funded needs of the community at the expense of graft within the Housing and Urban Development Fund, an apparent give-away to selective group based on race." That was the only mention of Scalise on the thread.

When the story resurfaced at the end of 2014, liberal groups like Occupy Democrats pounced on the revelation and spread the word on social media. Several of our readers contacted us asking us if it was true. We contacted Scalise’s office but didn’t hear back.

Scalise’s response

On Dec. 29, Moira Bagley Smith, a spokeswoman for Scalise, initially told the Washington Post that Scalise likely attended the event, but she distanced the Republican lawmaker from the Duke group, calling them a "hate-fueled ignorance and intolerance."

Scalise told the Times-Picayune in New Orleans that he attended many events around that time to rally opposition to a proposed state tax plan. While he didn’t admit he attended, he said, "I didn't know who all of these groups were and I detest any kind of hate group. For anyone to suggest that I was involved with a group like that is insulting and ludicrous."

Scalise said poor staffing in his state office resulted in a failure to vet the event. "I had one person that was working for me. When someone called and asked me to speak, I would go."

On Dec. 30, Scalise said in a statement that he spoke to a group "whose views I wholeheartedly condemn," though he did not name the EURO.

"It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold."

Duke and Kenny Knight

A longtime political adviser for Duke, Kenny Knight, provided several conflicting accounts of the conference and Scalise’s involvement.

Knight said he organized the event for Duke, who was living in Russia at the time and would have to speak to the conference remotely. Knight first told the Post that he booked the Best Western and invited Scalise to speak, noting that the two were neighbors.

Knight said Scalise would not have known the event was held by Duke, whose name is prominent, especially in Louisiana, and would have signaled red flags.

"I’ve known David for 40 years, so I did him a favor," Knight told the Post. "As part of that, I decided to ask Steve, our local representative, to come by and say a few words before the conference started. He agreed, believing it was going to be neighbors, friends, and family. He saw me not as David Duke’s guy, but as the president of our civic association."

Scalise spoke for 15 minutes early in the day but did not hear Duke speak, Knight said.

Knight later told Slate that Scalise didn’t speak to the conference at all, but instead addressed a gathering of the local Jefferson Heights Civic Association. Knight, who also insisted that EURO was not a white supremacist group, said he had access to the Best Western conference room all day and held the local meeting two and a half hours before the EURO event started. At least a quarter of the people in attendance during Scalise’s speech were also there for the main event, Knight said.

"I wanted to reach out to him and give him an audience so he could talk to people from his district about legislation he was proposing," Knight said. "I did that as a courtesy."

For his part, Duke said he doesn’t know if Scalise was there. As mentioned, he was in Russia at the time.

"I’ve got conflicting reports," Duke said. "One person said he was a no show, that he was scheduled to come. Another person said he did come. I just don’t know what the truth was. It seems that Mr. Scalise says that he may have (been there)."

News accounts are lacking

There are no reports from 2002 of Scalise attending the event. Newspaper archives contain scant coverage of the workshop.

However, there are a couple stories in the week before the conference that signaled the event was a lightning rod for negative attention.

The Iowa Cubs, a minor league team for the Chicago Cubs, was in town that weekend for a road series and changed hotels from the Best Western to avoid the controversial group, according to the New Orleans newspaper Gambit Weekly and the Des Moines Register.

The Gambit also reported that Best Western corporate executives were unhappy when they learned who had booked the space.

"A contract to book this event was made some time ago, and it is our practice to fulfill our contractual obligations," a spokesman told the paper. "Our company does not share the views of this organization."

What we don’t know

We’re left with faded memories and partial accounts. The most-fleshed out history comes from Knight. In that telling, Scalise may not have attended the actual conference, but he spoke to a group at the hotel on the same day at the invitation of Knight, a man close enough to Duke to organize a white empowerment conference for the former Klan leader.

There’s no evidence Scalise was an "honored guest" at the EURO event as White, the Louisiana blogger, alleged. But Scalise has admitted he spoke to the group and has not denied other details published by White, while also claiming he does not remember attending.

Did Scalise know what he was attending? Knight and Scalise said he didn’t; others have said Duke was so notorious in Louisiana it would be impossible for Scalise not to know.

From the evidence, we know Scalise attended … something. Whether it was a gathering of white supremacists or a civic meeting right before is unclear. If Knight’s account is accurate -- and we’re not saying it is -- then Scalise has admitted to speaking to a group he never addressed, which would be another bizarre twist in this muddied controversy, one that we’ll continue to monitor.