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Dennis Oetting, friend of David Owen who was the former close campaign advisor of Dole.

Interviewed May 1, 1996


FL: Describe your relationship with Dave Owen. How long you've known him. What kind of guy he is.

OETTING:

We've known each other since the fifth grade. David's a very interesting guy. He's kind of a shy, quiet guy. At the time all of this was happening to him, he had been a former state senator, he had been a former lieutenant governor. In our communities he had been president of two different banks. Dave had a lot of real estate interests and really was someone who was something of a mover and shaker in our particular county. And a great many people knew him and he was civicly involved in a great many things besides his political activities. So when it initially hit him that The Kansas City Star was starting to run things, and the local TV stations were starting to use his name and all of the implications that were there. That was a pretty devastating blow to him. Also to his family. And his wife, and he has three daughters. And one has to, if you're in that position obviously, be concerned, "What are my kids thinking about me?"

FL: Describe Dave's relationship with Senator Dole....

OETTING:

Well, I think it goes back as far as 1974. It's the type of relationship that David, I think, unquestionably was part of Dole's inner circle and, I think, something of a trusted advisor. And a relationship that was more than just two people that were in something for each other, because Dave's daughter worked in Dole's office I think through some summers while she was going to college. Senator Dole obviously was aware of Dave's children and they literally were growing up within this time frame. And so when this came about that it was pretty obvious that Senator Dole just dropped Dave like a bad habit, I think he was really shocked. I don't believe he could believe that after twenty years that he would be treated that way. I think in that kind of relationship there has to be loyalty on both sides of the coin.

Now I feel that David felt that somehow or another it was kind of an honor thing going here. And I feel that he feels that Dole didn't live up to his end of the bargain. Because in my opinion he could have obviously changed a great many things that happened to Dave Owen just by saying to the press, "I've known Dave Owen for twenty years and he has integrity and he's one of my closest political advisors and I'm sure this is nothing but a lot to do about politics." But he didn't do that. So obviously Owen's attitude about friendship was not the same as Senator Dole's.

FL: Your perspective as a friend, watching all this.

OETTING:

Dave Owen plays hardball politics. So I don't think he was surprised that he could be on the receiving end of somebody throwing inside pitches, or knock-down pitches for that matter. But I think he was surprised that it seemed at a certain point to kind of have a life of its own. There seemed to be a period of time when stories were churned. It wouldn't be anything new. If you were a friend of his and you read what it had said, it was a rehash of what had been said ten days earlier. But it almost seemed to be an effort to keep Owen's name in the paper. And I think he was surprised at that. And then obviously stated happening to him that he didn't expect. There were people all around the state, Owen, when he ran for governor he absolutely campaigned in every county in the state and he knows a great many people politically connected. Well, pretty soon those people didn't speak to him when he went to a grouping. If he made phone calls, didn't return the phone calls. It was pretty obvious that they decided the best thing to do was to not be associated with Dave Owen. I think then it also started happening to him concerning the supposed business friends he had. Because in our conversations David said, "After three years you find out who your real friends really are." And there are a great many people that just apparently took the posture "it's easier not to associate with him supposedly then I won't have a problem if he has a problem."

FL: What has he said to you about the press conference where Dole did not stand up for him and then never called him.

OETTING:

I think Dave, until they slammed the gates on the prison door, I think that he thought that Bob Dole would step forward and say, "Hey, wait a minute. I know this guy. I've known him for twenty years." And the fact that he just totally abandoned Dave. To this day he's never telephoned the man. And I think Dave held Bob Dole as kind of the epitome of the pull your boot straps up, the best possible things about the Midwestern work ethic. All of the things that everybody knows about Bob Dole. And then in a personal experience that has literally changed Dave's life, Dole didn't meet Dave's expectations as what a friend would do for you. That's got to hurt. And again, David's not [about] to dwell on something like that, but I believe 'cause we have talked about it, he almost felt that at the last minute somehow there would be some sort of a reprieve because that he believed that Senator Dole could have helped and he didn't.

FL: What kind of questions does that raise for you? What kind of a reflection is that on Bob Dole?

OETTING:

Well, personally, you don't have to sign contracts with me either. My handshake's my word. I don't abandon my friends. I can't think good of Bob Dole because of what he did. Dave Owen's my best friend and he let him down. I don't let my friends down. So I have that one instance, I don't know, Bob Dole wouldn't know me from a load of coal. But the way I know Bob Dole is through Dave Owen. It's not the way I deal with people that I call my friend.

FL: The connection between policy and character.

OETTING:

You almost have to, do actions speak louder than words. All I can base this on is the association that Dave Owen had with Senator Dole. And in my opinion Senator Dole obviously looked out for Senator Dole, but he didn't look out for Dave Owen. And I don't see that as a positive trait. I'm not in politics and I understand politics is compromise, but there's also integrity. And if someone has been involved with you in politics for twenty years and has worked, everyone who surrounds you knows that person has done this, and then to abandon them. Because he could have done some things and he did not. He chose not to. So I think the question would have to be directed to Senator Dole, "Why didn't you do that?"

FL: Circle back and briefly tell the story of what the charges were, nothing turning up, and David ending up in prison. A short story line.

OETTING:

It would appear that initially the Bush campaign, when Dole was running for President, like any campaign in hardball politics, were looking for something where they could do something to hurt the other candidate. And so someone did some digging and said there could be some question as to Dave Owens' involvement as a representative of a gentleman who was looking for the opportunity to find someone with some political clout in Kansas dealing with paramutual betting and building up a racetrack. This led to an investigation and ultimately was tried in a state court and the state judge says, "It's political. The whole thing is a political witch hunt. You can't substantiate the charges." And dismissed the charges.

But David made an error 'cause he went on the courthouse steps and in effect said that the situation was politics and the Attorney General at the time was more there to seek publicity than to seek the truth, etc. etc. And so he in turn decided he would turn this over to the "Feds." And so it then became a Federal case and they decided if the Feds can't get you on anything else, they can get you on taxes. And so that's what it became. And after spending, I don't know the exact amount, hundreds of thousands of dollars defending himself he ultimately ended up in a court that was really still very political because the majority of [the] people on the jury, and I don't know this to be a fact, but it was in a Democratic county is where he was tried, and he's from a Republican county. And I think a good many of the Democrats on that jury figured, "This is a fatcat Republican. And if the Federal government says he did something wrong he must be guilty." And so the ultimate result was that he was tried. And the interesting thing is that when they came to sentencing, sentencing is based on the amount of, in this case, that Dave had not paid. But he had paid all of his taxes. So that the Federal judge recessed for a week so that they could literally negotiate a figure that he would pay, and kind of pulled it out of thin air. But the judge was trying in effect to help Dave in making sure that it wouldn't be too big of a figure. So they used $4,200 and he in turn was then sentenced to, I'm not sure of the actual sentencing, with parole he should have been released in three months. But when it came time for the three month parole, when he went before the parole person, which I did not know is a Federal employee, he said he could tell by the body language that he wasn't going to be paroled. And so ultimately he ended up serving seven months where it should have been three months. And in effect had to fight to get someone to review his parole hearing. And ultimately a Federal judge did review that and based upon the additional four month time that he served said, "Look, there will be no halfway house, there will be no parole officer. As far as I'm concerned you are released because this has been a travesty from the beginning." But it's seven months out of Dave's life and as the old cliche is, where do you go back to get your reputation. David is stronger for this and he's stronger because he chose to be stronger. And in our conversations before he went in jail, and when he was in Kansas I saw him every week that he was incarcerated. It was very obvious that he was not going to let the system or this beat him. That they might take away his reputation, but they certainly were not going to take away his ability to function and as he said to me, "Hey, they can do anything they want to. I know I'm not guilty."

And I think he's made a remarkable adjustment. We're closer. I think anybody that cares about Dave Owen is closer to him. David told me, "You absolutely do not have any inkling at what it's like until they shut the prison gate on you and you now have absolutely no privileges or rights whatsoever. In one second you're a free person and the next second you have no rights at all. I know that his attitude and ideas changed about prisons, people in prisons, what it's all about. My visiting him in there, I never thought I would visit anyone in prison. Mine have changed. It's quite an education.

FL: Dave wanted you to tell the story then.

OETTING:

Yes, he asked me that. He called me and he said, "Look I've been talking to the people at FRONTLINE and we're getting some pressure for me not to do this. Would you sit down and talk to these people and tell them how you saw it." And I said, "Sure." Dave Owen [spent] almost four days and nights with my family and friends when I was going through my heart transplant. He did things for my wife and daughter and my mom and dad, that there's no way you can ever put a value on that or how you could ever repay it. Obviously in his asking if I would do this, I said, "Certainly."

This is the letter that David sent me in March of '94 and I think one of the ways that he kept part of his sanity was that he wrote a lot of letters and I tried to write him weekly. And even though I was going to see him I would write him letters. And this is a letter addressed to me. It says, "Dear Dennis, Nothing can prepare a person to go to prison. In the span of one second you experience the change of being a free man to becoming a number with no freedom at all. All of my possessions were taken from me. I was strip searched and given some clothes to wear that were paint stained and full of holes from something being spilled on them. It seemed the guards do everything possible to intimidate the new arrivals and to establish their superiority. I was immediately given a job of cleaning baseboards with a toothbrush so I would have to crawl around on the floor of our unit. One of the inmates told me to just hang in there and they'll get tired of you if you don't rebel. Saying goodbye to Laura was the worst punishment of all. I love her so much and being separated will be the hardest part of my experience. When I stepped through the gate and left her staring after me, I thought my heart would break. She's been such a source of strength for me and this is going to be much harder on her than for me in many ways. When I checked in I was assigned to a unit that is one of the oldest buildings here so there isn't much space. The guard who checked me in assigned me to a four man sleeping unit with three black inner city drug dealers. I don't think I've ever been so frightened, but I couldn't show it for fear of showing weakness. I didn't sleep much for the first few days but I'm getting along okay with them at this point. I finally got some decent clothes after standing in line for about an hour. Time here doesn't mean anything. I was given steel-toed boots, better shirts, pants, and underwear and socks and a trash bag to carry it in. I worry about my family and the effects that my imprisonment is going to have on them. My grandsons don't know about me yet and I hope they can be protected until I can explain it to them myself someday. I can't help but wonder how Bob Dole could turn his back on me after twenty years of working with him in good times and bad. He's never bothered to learn the facts about what happened. He simply made an instantaneous decision that was in his best interests politically to throw me to the wolves. I though up to the minute I walked up to the prison that this wrong would be righted and I would be spared this experience. This is something that happens in a third world country, not in the United States of America. I would appreciate you keeping an eye on things at home for me. You are one person I know I can count on, no matter how tough it gets. I am determined with God's help to not only survive this but to make it something positive come from it. I've started a Bible study with another guy here and we're using the textbooks from the Operation Timothy as our study guide. Also I'm going to exercise every day to keep in good shape. Tell Sil and Shea hello and thanks for everything. Dave."

We sent a lot of letters back and forth and I've got kind of a wacko sense of humor so I would intentionally, the latest joke, I would try to clean it up. The guards read everything so he said be careful what you say. But I got to the point where it was kind of a ritual and I tried on Wednesday mornings to sit down and just bring Dave up to date as what had been going on. Just very homey things. I had a brother that was in 'Nam and when I was writing him I said, "What do you want to know about?" And he said, "I want to know what's going on at home." So I always wrote very mundane kind of things but I think David kind of felt the same way.

FL: It seemed as you were reading it that you were sort of back in time.

OETTING:

Well, it's, yeah. This was tough. I never had a friend in prison. So what do you do? My approach was to keep it light. But as Dave was trying to follow through with the parole, trying to do these things, doors kept slamming. You start saying, "Am I paranoid or what's really going on here?" From his point of view. And we would talk about it. I think just to see somebody from the outside. And as I would go there it was interesting because you got so you know the other prisoners. And you would see them there with their wives and their kids. It gave me a whole different perspective about people who are in prison. And it's tough. I have suggested to David that he ought to write a book about these types of experiences. I know his attitude has changed about the affect of incarceration. As an example he said you could probably empty two-thirds of the prisons in this country if you released the non-violent offenders that were there for drug charges. And some of the people who were there were so naive because depending on what state you're in or what area it may be that you could have [a] marijuana cigarette on you.

FL: Going back before the prison experience. Where you talked about Dave and his friendships. Did that alter your view of what people are capable of?

OETTING:

I think because of what happened to me as a heart transplant patient and what happened to David, that what I've come to realize that the only things important in your life are your friendships and your family. Nothing else really does matter. I'm fairly aware of the savage parts of human beings. If you are a person the least bit aware in our culture and our world, you have to be. But in my particular case I had thousands of people praying for me around the United States who'd never heard of me before. I think David would say that he is a stronger person, and values friendships and family more so now than before all of this happened to him. And to understand that don't look into the future and deal with it then, that my god, you've got to live every day to the ultimate. I'm here on a pass. And every day that I get to stick around the grass is greener, the sky is bluer, the birds sing prettier and I think to a certain degree, David feels that way too. So we're both very aware of the inequities and the ugliness in the world but there's so much beauty. And it's like anything else in life. What you choose to see. And I think he chooses to see the good in life and so do I. And that's why this didn't get him. They can't get him.

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