'Good Ol' Boys Roundups' are merely get-acquainted affairs, organizer says

July 20, 1995|By New York Times News Service

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- As President Clinton joined the growing list of critics of the annual "Good Ol' Boys Roundup" in the east Tennessee mountains, the organizer of the events defended them yesterday as legitimate parties at which federal and local law-enforcement officers got a chance to know one another.

Gene Rightmyer, a retired agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said that when a few racist incidents occurred among some beer-sodden participants, he had told the culprits to stop or leave. He strongly denied assertions, first made by a member of a right-wing Alabama militia group, that this year's gathering included the sale of hate items such as T-shirts emblazoned with the face of the late Rev. Martin Luther King behind a target.

Mr. Rightmyer said two black officers, including one from the firearms agency, had attended this year's gathering, and that when he learned that four white officers had complained about the blacks' presence, he told them, "You can do one of two things. Shut up or leave." The men left, he said.

In Washington yesterday, Mr. Clinton said, "I want to say that if anybody who works in federal law enforcement thinks that kind of behavior is acceptable, they ought to think about working someplace else."

The FBI and the Treasury Department, which oversees the firearms agency and the Secret Service, are already investigating press accounts of the events, and the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing on them for tomorrow.

[The Justice Department is likely to require top FBI officials to take lie detector tests to resolve contradictory accounts about the use of deadly force in the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, the Washington Post reported today.

[The paper quoted sources close to a new Justice Department probe of the siege, in which a federal agent shot and killed a white separatist's unarmed wife, as saying that the use of polygraph tests may be the only way to clear up who issued the "shoot-on-sight" policy.]

Mr. Rightmyer, a native of Kentucky and a former Marine, said he believed the criticism of the roundups was part of a politically motivated "setup" by the militia group, the Gadsden Minutemen, members of which harbor intense hostility toward the firearms agency for its role in regulating the manufacture and sale of guns.

Sitting in the office of his lawyer in Knoxville, W. Thomas Dillard, Mr. Rightmyer said the original militia report on the roundups was written on stationery that features the Confederate battle flag. The report, written by Jeff Randall, a founder of the Gadsden Minutemen, also contains an attack on the Southern Poverty Law Center, a prominent civil-rights group that investigates militia groups and racist organizations.

Mr. Rightmyer said he found it "strange" that the militia group, given its own views, would make accusations of racism against anyone else.

Mr. Randall said in his report, which was first picked up by the Washington Times, that he had infiltrated this year's roundup, putting on a police cap and sneaking in with a video camera through an unguarded rear entrance to the campground.

Mr. Randall later released videotape showing a sign reading "Nigger Check Point."

Mr. Rightmyer, 54, who retired from the firearms agency in 1994, said there had been such a sign, but that it was at the entrance to the gathering in 1990, not the one held this past May 18-20, as reported in the press, including the New York Times. He said he had insisted that the sign be removed.

"When I arrived at the check-in point and saw the sign, I got out of my car and said, 'I want that down now,' " Mr. Rightmyer said. The sign was soon taken down, he said.

Several Justice Department and Treasury Department officials also said they thought the image of the sign was from the 1990 gathering.

"A photograph of the sign taken in 1990 was doctored into the video," agreed Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"Whether or not it was, there was still some objectionable stuff going on at this roundup," one law-enforcement officer said.

The videotape of the sign was provided to ABC News by a member of the militia. Gary Werdlow, the news director of the ABC News affiliate in Washington, WJLA-TV, said the station had broadcast both still pictures from 1995 and videotape from the 1990 roundup, and made clear in the audio part of its broadcast which images were from which year.

The roundups began in 1980 as an office party for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents from the Southeast, Mr. Rightmyer said, including agents from Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky and Virginia as well as Tennessee. But people had such a good time that they invited their friends, and the event rapidly increased in size, he said.

This year there were more than 300 participants.

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