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Al Regnery's Secret Life

The pathetic career of Reagan's juvenile justice chief.

Until early June, Alfred Regnery was the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the Reagan Justice Department. In this position Regnery has faithfully followed the president's policy of seeking to abolish the office. The office was established in 1975 with the goal of removing juvenile offenders from adult jails and prisons and deinstitutionalizing status offenders such as truants. At least 81,000 juveniles nationwide remain in such facilities, where they are at least eight times more likely to commit suicide than youths held in juvenile detention centers. Nevertheless, Regnery and his superiors say that the federal government needs to do nothing more. Congress, by overwhelming bipartisan majorities, has refused to abolish the office in each of the last five years. Regnery responded by doing the minimum necessary to comply with the congressional mandate. Instead he concentrated his office's efforts on right-wing pet causes such as school discipline and the administration's antipornography crusade.

Regnery abruptly resigned on May 21, saying he wants to return to his family's publishing business. The resignation was treated by both the administration and the press as part of the usual comings and goings of administration personnel. Yet his decision caught his personal secretary, his press secretary, and his immediate superior in the Justice department by surprise. He had speaking engagements lined up through June, and had spoken to me about his plans for the coming year, including developing programs for chronic juvenile offenders and funding more research on pornography. Regnery has been a controversial figure ever since he was appointed to the job in 1983. With more of his questionable personal and professional behavior coming to light, it seems more likely that Regnery was doing both himself and his colleagues a favor by bowing out quickly.

One of the most disturbing incidents occurred in 1976 and was never discussed in his confirmation hearings. In late October 1976 Regnery was winding up a campaign to become district attorney in Madison, Wisconsin. His wife had called the police three times in the weeks before the election to complain of obscene phone calls and vandalism. Regnery held a press conference to charge that his political opponents were using "Watergate-style tactics" to force him out of the race. When his wife called the police on the afternoon of October 31, 1976, the charge was much more serious. Christina Regnery, who was eight months pregnant, told police that two men broke into her home and warned that her husband should drop out of the race for district attorney. Then she said the two men had cut her with an embroidery knife and forced her to have oral sex.

The police investigation concluded that Christina Regnery had fabricated the entire incident--and Alfred Regnery told police that he too had "given serious thought" to that possibility. No neighbors had seen anything unusual, there was no sign of forced entry in the Regnery house, and no sign of struggle. In addition, although Christina Regnery had 73 slash marks on her body, none was serious. "Not a single cut required a stitch or a Band-Aid," said one law-enforcement official involved. The police report concluded that "the infliction of the wounds on Mrs. Regnery are still questionable and may have been self-inflicted or done by subjects known to her. There is no indication that any unknown subjects inflicted any of the injuries." Regnery and the police agreed that they would "pursue the possibility of self-inflicted injuries." The report also said that it was "decided at this time that Mr. Regnery would not disclose any of the circumstances surrounding the incident."

Only minutes later, however, Regnery told a newspaper reporter in the hospital corridor, according to the police report, "that his wife had been raped by a white male and a black male and had been stabbed. … The wounds had been stitched." Of course, his wife had never alleged that she was raped, she was clearly not the victim of a stabbing, and she had not required any stitches. But Regnery's false claims were useful to his campaign. The headline in the Madison paper, "Two Attack Wife of D.A. Candidate," seemed to substantiate Regnery's earlier charges. Nevertheless, Regnery lost the election.

But this was not all the police investigation uncovered. When police searched Regnery's home, shortly after the alleged assault, they found a cache of pornography, including "several catalogues for various prophylactic devices and erotica." The police also reported finding "a book with numerous color photos of various sexual gratification, including oral sex and placing of objects into the vagina," a German sex magazine, and a copy of Penthouse.

Seven years later, in mid-1983, Edwin Meese asked Regnery to informally head the administration's anti-pornography campaign. The President's Commission on Pornography, whose report is due out soon, was set up with the help of a $125,000 grant provided by Regnery's Office of Juvenile Justice.

Regnery denies that he is a hypocritical on the pornography issue. At first he claimed that the police report detailing the discovery of numerous catalogues and magazines was "a fabrication." He said he only had "a copy of Playboy or something like that." Then he said, "I think a friend of mine in Germany sent me one magazine and I had it around." When asked about all the items in the police report, he conceded, "I probably had a little [pornography] around the house, like I bet lots of people do." But Regnery denied that he was a consumer of pornography. "I wasn't then and I never have been. I don't use and I don't enjoy it."

This was not the last time Regnery's personal behavior raised questions about his public career. The day after Regnery's first child was born, a Madison pediatrician named William Ylitalo was called in to treat the baby for a medical emergency. Ylitalo, citing doctor-patient confidentiality, has never specified exactly what occurred in the hospital. But the doctor came away convinced Regnery had showed anger and hostility toward him and the hospital staff. Dr. Ylitalo was so distressed by the incident that in 1983 he sent a private letter to three U.S. senators recommending that they vote not to confirm Regnery as administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice. "The appointee to this post should be a person who had integrity and is emotionally stable rather than someone whose moral honesty is questionable," he wrote. Regnery says Ylitalo is a "liar."

Dr. Ylitalo's letter compounded the controversy about Regnery's nomination. Regnery was well connected but inexperienced. The son of Henry Regnery, the conservative publisher, he had been a college director of the Young Americans for Freedom, a Senate aide, and had served for a year in the Lands Division of the Reagan Justice Department. But he had never held a job remotely related to juvenile justice, and drove around town with a bumper sticker on his car that asked, "Have you slugged your kid today?" His explanation during his Senate confirmation hearings was, "I try to keep a sense of humor about the things I do."

During those hearings Senator Howard Metzenbaum asked Regnery, "What have you done with respect to juvenile justice matters as far as studying the issues?" This is the exchange that followed:

Regnery: I have done considerable reading and other study on the juvenile courts system.

Metzenbaum: Tell us some of the works you have read concerning juvenile justice.

Regnery: I guess I cannot give you a list of them off the top of my head.

Metzenbaum: Can you give us any?

Regnery: Well, they are in my office. I cannot think of the titles and the authors, but they are either in my office or my home. I have read quite a number I have also studied the issue of juvenile courts. I have studied the issue of juvenile corrections.

Metzenbaum: How did you study the issue of juvenile courts?

Regnery: Reading.

Metzenbaum: What did you read?

Regnery: Various books and articles.

Metzenbaum: What books?

Regnery: I will have to give them to you. I cannot remember all the titles of the books I have read, Senator.

In office Regnery devoted himself to issues that had little to do with juvenile justice. He was criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike for awarding a $186,710 grant to a dean at Jerry Falwell's Liberty College for the purpose of designing a high-school course on the Constitution. He drew even more bipartisan criticism when he awarded $789,000 to Judith Reisman, a former songwriter for the "Captain Kangaroo" show, to do a study of the cartoons in Penthouse, Playboy, and Hustler.

Reisman had been recommended to Regnery by his chief deputy, James Wooton, who was impressed by Reisman's allegations that Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the renowned pioneer sex researcher of the 1940s, had gotten all of his data on child sexuality from "a 63-year-old man who had sex with over 800 children." Wooton arranged for Reisman to meet Regnery. This meeting led to Reisman's getting the grant.

Resiman later stated in a memo found in Regnery's files that she had been given the money in part "to conclude research on the Kinsey data on child sexuality." Regnery now denies this. "As far as I know," Regnery told me, "I don’t' think any of our money is going for that Kinsey stuff." Reisman did not return my phone calls.

The most extraordinary example of Regnery's practice of doling out grants for political purposes was a $4.25 million grant given in January 1984 to set up a National School Safety Center at Pepperdine University in California. The grant recipient was a close friend and political associate of Meese named George Nicholson, who had lost a bid to become attorney general of California in November 1982.

The fact that Nicholson, who had no previous affiliation with Pepperdine, received a noncompetitive grant just two months after losing the election attracted some attention on Capitol Hill. But Regnery assured a House subcommittee in April 1984 that there was nothing irregular about the grant. He repeatedly said that the administration had selected Pepperdine to sponsor the center, and that Pepperdine had in turn selected Nicholson. Both Regnery and Nicholson denied that Nicholson's friendship with Meese was instrumental in the awarding of the grant.

Yet memos in Regnery's own files show that he misled Congress. The administration privately agreed to give Nicholson the $4.2 million well before Pepperdine was involved. And they gave him the grant as part of a larger public relations effort by the White House to protect the president on a sensitive issue.

The issue was education. In late 1983 White House pollster Richard Wirthlin found that the American people disapproved of the administration's massive cuts in federal education spending by a margin of two to one. White House deputy counsel Michael Deaver was called on to mount a public relations campaign. If the administration wasn't going to change its policies, it could change the public's perceptions.

At the time Regnery was working with Gary Bauer, assistant secretary of education, on a report titled "Chaos in the Public Schools," an exaggerated portrait of mayhem in the classroom. For example, Regnery and Bauer asserted that there had been 2,400 cases of arson in public schools in the previous year. They neglected to mention, though, that the figure came from a National Institute of Education study that found the arson incidents cost an average of 39 cents each. In general, the report vastly overstated the problem of school violence. Democratic representative Pat Williams, who chairs the House Select Subcommittee on Education, pointed out that "students are between four to eight times safer, depending on which major crime you are talking about, in schools than they are in their own homes."

But the school violence theme was both emotionally powerful and politically versatile. Bauer, an ally of the religious right, was hoping to whip up public support for tuition tax credits. The Justice Department was hoping outrage at school violence could be used to weaken civil rights law. Roger Clegg, head of the Justice Depratment's Office of Legal Policy, wrote in a memo to Llowell Jensen, another top Justice Department official, proposing that the administration claim that civil rights laws undermined school discipline by allowing students to sue school authorities. He suggested that the school discipline issue could be the pretext for introducing legislation to give legal immunity from civil rights legislation, not just to school officials, but to all public officials. And of course, Michael Deaver and the White House staff were delighted with an issue that could be used to divert public attention from the president's unpopular education spending cuts.

In a memo dated November 15, 1983, Regnery urged the White House to schedule a televised presidential fireside chat about the importance of discipline in the nation's public schools. Two weeks later Regnery wrote a memo to then-attorney general William French Smith, stating that the White House "expressed considerable interest in the proposal," and that he planned to give $4.2 million to Nicholson. "We plan to fund a school safety resource center. … George Nicholson, the Republican candidate for Attorney General of California in 1982 … has tentatively agreed to assist us in the endeavor." The memo never mentioned Pepperdine. Whether Meese had anything to do with this tentative agreement is still not known.

In December 1983 the president embarked on an excellence in education campaign, and the "Chaos in the Public Schools" report was released to reinforce this blitz. On January 9, 1984, Reagan devoted his nationwide radio address to school discipline, and announced that Nicholson had been awarded a grant to establish the National School Safety Center. The irony was that Nicholson had not yet applied for the grant. On January 11, 1984, Nicholson finally submitted a formal proposal for the $4.2 million grant that the president had awarded him two days earlier!

Within a year and a half it became clear that Regnery and his superiors had been far more concerned about scoring public relations points than about actually establishing a worthwhile institution. Regnery's staff had been skeptical from the start that Nicholson was competent to run the School Safety Center. During Nicholson's tenure as director of the California District Attorneys Association in the late 1970s, the group almost went bankrupt. Regnery says he knew of allegations of Nicholson's mismanagement as director of the association when considering the School Safety Center grant, but approved the proposal anyway. Last summer, after hearing numerous complaints about Nicholson's administrative practices, officials at Pepperdine ordered him to go on paid leave and then demoted him.

Regnery says that he is leaving the Justice Department because he has accomplished most of what he set out to do. "We redirected the way the whole criminal justice system regards juvenile crime," Regnery told the conservative Washington Times. "We put together some programs and research that will have, over time, a significant impact for the better."

By Murray Waas