White Noise

Did House Majority Whip Steve Scalise admit to speaking at a white supremacist event he never attended?

Steve Scalise
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise speaks to the media after House Republican leadership elections in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on June 19, 2014.

Photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters

Rep. Steve Scalise may have just ineptly admitted to speaking at a white supremacist event that eyewitnesses say he never attended. Two event attendees say it’s factually inaccurate to characterize Scalise’s comments as directed at the supremacist gathering—even though Scalise’s own office has said the House majority whip spoke to the group 12 years ago.

Kenny Knight is a longtime associate of David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who ran for governor of Louisiana in 1991. He’s been a key player in news that broke on Sunday that indicated Scalise addressed the white supremacist convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization when he was a Louisiana state representative in May 2002.

Knight said on Tuesday that it’s “totally incorrect” to say Scalise spoke at that convention.

“He spoke early in the day to a contingent of people, prior to the conference kicking off,” Knight said. “He was not there as a guest speaker at the conference.”

According to Knight, he and Scalise were neighbors in 2002, living in the Old Jefferson neighborhood outside New Orleans. They were friendly and lived within a few blocks of each other. Knight recalls that Scalise would beep the horn and wave at him if he drove by in his car.

“Now and then I’d see him at a Republican function, we’d say hello, but we never exchanged any philosophy ideas,” Knight said.

Knight has known and publicly supported Duke for decades. He agreed to help Duke set up some of the logistics for the 2002 EURO convention, especially since the former KKK leader was in Russia at the time of the event. You can read more about EURO’s background here at the Southern Poverty Law Center. It’s ugly stuff—anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, concerns about “the ‘browning’ of America,” Nazi apologia—but Knight insists the organization isn’t a white supremacist group.

Regardless, Knight said that he wasn’t involved in planning the event’s itinerary or picking its speakers but that he did book space for it in the Landmark Best Western Hotel in Metairie, Louisiana. Besides booking the venue, Knight said he also set up refreshments for attendees, arranged for them to eat at a local restaurant, and organized a haunted house tour of the French Quarter after the conference.

“I, simply as a courtesy to Mr. Duke, rented the room and set it up to give them a location,” he said. “I wasn’t really involved with the actual conference itself.”

It’s important to bear in mind that Knight isn’t critical of the conference, which puts him in a very small category.

“EURO was not a white supremacist organization,” he said. “The people that came were middle-aged, taxpaying, God-fearing, Christian people.”

According to Knight, the EURO conference was slated to start in the early afternoon, roughly around 1 p.m. But his reservation at the hotel gave him access to the conference space for a few hours before the event’s official kickoff. At the time, Knight headed the Jefferson Heights Civic Association, which was largely comprised of elderly people who lived in his and Scalise’s neighborhood.

Knight said he set up a morning event for his own civic association in the hotel space before the EURO conference started. Though that event was in the conference’s hospitality room, it wasn’t at all related to the EURO event, he said.

“It was my room to do what I want with it,” he said.

Knight invited then–state Rep. Scalise as well as a representative from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and a person from the American Red Cross to speak to the civic association at the hotel. Knight said he thinks the Red Cross speaker was from a local chapter but didn’t remember specifically. He also said he didn’t remember the names of either of the other speakers. The representative from the sheriff’s department spoke to attendees about a neighborhood watch program, and the person from the Red Cross discussed CPR techniques. Scalise also spoke.

“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.”

Knight estimates that about two-thirds to three-quarters of the people in the hospitality room at the civic association meeting were local residents who weren’t there to attend the EURO event, and about one-third to one-quarter were EURO convention attendees who arrived early and filtered into the hospitality room to drink coffee and kill time.

“I don’t think Steve was aware that there was a small contingent of people who came and sat in the audience prior to the EURO meeting,” Knight said.

I asked Knight if there was a sign on the hospitality room indicating it had been reserved for the EURO conference.

“I think not,” Knight said. “I really truly believe, if there were any signs or banners up, Mr. Scalise would [have asked], ‘What is that?’ And he probably would have left. Because I don’t recall having any banners or signs up at all.”

Knight said that when he invited Scalise to speak to the civic association, he never mentioned that it would be held in the same room the EURO conference would later use or that some conference attendees may be present.

Barbara Noble, Knight’s then-girlfriend who was also present at the hotel event and who I spoke with separately, corroborated Knight’s account.

“[Scalise] was just up there for a few minutes, maybe 10, 15 at the most, and it was in the morning,” she said.

Noble said that there was no signage, banners, or mention of the EURO conference at the civic association event and that Scalise left immediately after giving his talk.

The first report of Scalise’s alleged comments to the white supremacist organization came on Sunday from Louisiana blogger Lamar White, who uncovered anonymous posts on Stormfront, a longstanding neo-Nazi online forum.

Besides Knight and Noble, the only event attendees who have spoken publicly about the meeting are Scalise himself—who told the Times-Picayune that he doesn’t remember it—and a white nationalist StormFront message board commenter who wrote under the username “Alsace Hebert” and whose account now appears to be defunct.

However, on Monday, an adviser for the House majority whip told the Washington Post that Scalise “appeared at a convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO.”

Knight and Noble are adamant that the Jefferson Heights Civic Association event and the EURO convention were clearly distinct events. When asked if he had invited Scalise to attend the EURO conference, Knight replied, “That is not what happened. I’ll take a lie-detector test. That is not what happened.”

When asked Tuesday afternoon, a spokeswoman for Scalise didn’t comment on Knight and Noble’s version of the events.

There’s total consensus on the right and left that Scalise displayed miserable judgment by associating himself with Knight, an ally of the former KKK leader. But Knight’s and Noble’s accounts cast doubt on an emerging narrative: that, as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Josh Schwerin told Politico, the Louisiana Republican “chose to cheerlead for a group of KKK members and neo-Nazis at a white supremacist rally.” If Knight and Noble are right, then the truth is much less theatrical than some make it sound.