Kevin Daley, DCNF
Thomas Figures, an assistant U.S. attorney whose accusations of racial bias torpedoed Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination to the federal bench in 1986, has a history of erratic and disturbed behavior, colleagues and estranged family say.
New sworn statements obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation given by former colleagues allege Figures was a paranoid figure who, among other things, believed CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather was communicating with him through his television. An office loner with a flair for confrontation, Figures was later indicted by federal authorities for attempting to bribe a witness.
30 years later, his testimony continues to shape press coverage of Sessions’ nomination to serve as attorney general in the Trump administration. Figures died in 2015.
The Star Witness
A Democrat who joined the U.S. attorney’s office during the Jimmy Carter administration, Figures was the first black man to serve as a federal prosecutor in Mobile, Ala. Though a stalwart of local Democratic politics — he was vice chair of the Mobile County Democratic Conference and his brother was a state senator — Figures chose to remain on the staff of the district’s new conservative U.S. attorney, one Jeff Sessions, following the election of former President Ronald Reagan. The pair worked together for five years.
Sessions and Figures would part ways, if only for a moment, in 1985. One year later, Sessions was preparing for the exchange of platitudes typical of a committee hearing for a district judgeship, when Figures scuttled his nomination with crippling allegations of racist sympathies.
Invited by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to give testimony to his character, Figures alleged Sessions regularly called him “boy” in private and admonished him to watch his mouth around the office’s white employees. His allegations were not corroborated by any member of Sessions’ staff. He also falsely claimed that Sessions ordered him to close his investigation of the lynching of a young black man named Michael Donald. Democrats on the panel peppered Sessions with biting questions and comments in the ensuing days.
“Mr. Sessions is a throwback to a shameful era, which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past,” Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy said during the proceedings. “It is inconceivable to me that a person of this attitude is qualified to be a U.S. attorney, let alone a U.S. federal judge.”
Figures was one of two witnesses who expressed concerns about Sessions’ racial politics. The other witness, a civil rights attorney named J. Gerald Hebert, testified that Sessions had made disparaging remarks about the ACLU and the NAACP. He went on to tell the committee he did not believe Sessions to be a racist.
Sessions’ appointment floundered, and the White House withdrew the nomination on July 31.
A Paranoid Streak
Federal investigators and former colleagues say Figures routinely displayed a pattern of erratic and paranoid behavior.
TheDCNF exclusively obtained an affidavit given by former FBI special agent John Brennan, who worked with Figures while he was a federal prosecutor, that claims Figures often made strange claims. In the sworn statement, Brennan says Figures once told him he believed CBS News anchor Dan Rather was signaling to him during his nightly news broadcasts, and relaying information he wanted Figures to use.
“Mr. Figures told me that CBS News anchor Dan Rather and other news anchors would glance off camera and were signaled when he was watching television,” Brennan’s affidavit reads. “Mr. Figures claimed that, once signaled, Mr. Rather, or the other news anchors, would speak directly to him from the television and tell him things they wanted him to do or would give him information they wanted him to have.”
On another occasion, Figures allegedly told Brennan he believed his home was bugged and asked him to execute a search of the house. The ensuing search did not turn up listening devices. In a related instance, Brennan says Figures told him he terminated a road trip from Mobile, Ala. to Dallas, Texas because he believed a truck with a satellite antennae was following him.
Brennan’s statements correspond to a second affidavit obtained by TheDCNF given by Cheryl Crisona, an assistant U.S. attorney who worked with Figures from 1981 to 1985. Crisona alleges Figures was confrontational with colleagues, and often made a secretary she shared with him cry. The affidavit mirrors claims Figures’ ex-wife Janice made during divorce proceedings in 1991.
Crisona says Figures was suspicious of group conversations in the office, for fear he was the subject of discussion.
“He was very paranoid about any group in the office talking, always assuming that we were talking about him,” the affidavit reads.
“In a nutshell, every one of us in that office was afraid of Thomas Figures,” she added.
Six years later in 1992, Figures was indicted by federal prosecutors for attempting to bribe a convicted drug dealer.
The kingpin, John Christopher, was preparing to take the stand against Figures’ client, Noble Beasley, who was accused of attempting to distribute 11 pounds of crack cocaine. A letter written by Christopher’s lawyer, Joseph Kulakowski, that was obtained by TheDCNF, claims Figures presented himself as Christopher’s lawyer in the docket room of a county jail and gained access to Christopher in a private meeting room. During that meeting, federal authorities alleged Figures offered Christopher $50,000 not to testify against his client.
At trial, when confronted with recordings of his meeting at the county jail, Figures testified that he was attempting to lure Christopher into a criminal scheme so he could report him for attempted bribery. He was acquitted of all charges, though Beasley would go on to serve a life sentence.
A Narrative Forged
Figures has since passed away, further calcifying a legacy of strained race relations. Accounts of Figures’ testimony have appeared, without reference to his dubious credibility, on CNN and CBS broadcasts, as well as in print through the Associated Press, Vanity Fair, and The Daily Beast, among others.
It is a matter of public record that Sessions supported the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which invalidated key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. However, remarks Sessions is alleged to have made behind closed doors, while widely disseminated in media, appear to rest on increasingly untenable grounds.
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