Charges: Ex-Clinton Chief of Staff Tried to Smuggle Knife, Tattoo Needles into Death Row

(AP Photo/John Duricka)
Photo: Betsey Wright.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) A former top aide to Bill Clinton when he was Arkansas governor was charged Wednesday with trying to smuggle a knife and 48 tattoo needles onto the state's death row.

Betsey Wright, a longtime visitor to death row, was detained May 22 after a guard noticed a small knife and a box cutter attached to her key chain, said prison spokeswoman Dina Tyler. A loose ink pen she had contained tweezers with sharpened edges, Tyler said. Inside a bag of Doritos, the guard found the tattoo needles.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Wright denied the charges against her.

"They think it's me, but it's not," Wright said. "I certainly did not do what they have charged me with."

An Arkansas State Police report shows Wright claimed she found the Doritos bag lying in the bottom of a vending machine at the prison and told guards, "I guess you don't get nothing free."

Prosecutors filed the 51 charges Wednesday against Wright, who is expected to turn herself in to authorities in the coming days. Prosecutors say a court hearing will be set after that.

Wright, 66, of Rogers, Ark., is a vocal death penalty opponent who served as chief of staff for Clinton, who presided over four executions as governor. During his 1992 presidential campaign, Wright handled what she described as "bimbo eruptions" — rumors that Clinton had had extramarital affairs.

After Clinton became president, Wright worked at a lobbying firm in Washington before returning to Arkansas.

Tyler said Wright never had the knife or the box cutter attached to her keys during her regular visits to death row at the state's Varner Unit, about 90 miles southeast of Little Rock.

The charges against Wright come as the AP obtained documents showing a death-row inmate allegedly passed love letters and contraband to a guard with whom he committed a sex act. Combined, the events represent just the latest in a series of high-profile incidents in the Arkansas prison system, ranging from two convicted murderers escaping in guard uniforms to a man being shot to death at a contraband checkpoint.

A state Freedom of Information Act request by the AP uncovered a prison internal affairs report detailing the July firing of Varner Unit guard Danita Williams. A letter by the warden claimed she helped the unnamed death-row inmate trade crackers in a laundry bag for soup from another prisoner. However, an internal investigation uncovered allegations that a romantic relationship between Williams and the inmate began at least in April.

A telephone number for Williams could not be found Wednesday. Prison officials redacted Williams' address and hometown from the discipline reports.

Tyler said investigators uncovered no evidence to substantiate the sex allegations.