BRETT KIMBERLIN WON'T BE VOTING IN THIS year's presidential election. A convicted felon, prisoner No. 01035-079 will be spending Nov. 3 in his cell at the federal correctional facility in Memphis, where he is serving a 50-year sentence for drug smuggling and illegal detonation of explosives. But mere incarceration isn't going to stop him from making his voice heard in the campaign. "I've paid my debt, I ought to be out of here," says Kimberlin. "The only reason I'm not is because I exercised my First Amendment rights and because the Administration and the campaign don't want me talking about my relationship with Vice President Quayle."

Kimberlin, 38, claims that on the eve of the 1988 election, federal officials prevented him from going public with a stunning allegation: that back in the early 1970s he had sold marijuana to a young Dan Quayle. With journalists unable to verify the accusation, the story lay mostly dormant until last week, when a report by the chairman of the Senate subcommittee on government management concluded that Kimberlin had indeed been gagged for political reasons. On Oct. 16, Kimberlin's lawyers will argue before the U.S. Court of Appeals panel in Washington, D.C., that their client's constitutional rights were violated and that he should be able to press the lawsuit he filed against Justice Department officials in 1990. "I have the facts on my side," Kimberlin insists.

Perhaps. Yet unwrapping the layers of mystery and uncertainty that still surround the Kimberlin case is no easy task. Kimberlin himself readily admits that he was a drug dealer; he has also been convicted of perjury. Vice President Quayle has denounced him as nothing but a hustler. "He's a convicted felon," Quayle told The Boston Globe last year. "Geez, I mean, he's in jail." And yet there are reputable people who give credence to Kimberlin's whole story. "I think the boy is telling the truth," says former U.S. Solicitor General Erwin Griswold, a Republican who has helped with Kimberlin's appeal.

Whatever the case, Kimberlin tells an intriguing tale. Raised in prosperous surroundings in Indianapolis—his father is an attorney, his mother a school counselor—he graduated from high school at 16 and quickly drifted into small-time drug dealing. He insists he met Quayle, then a law student at Indiana University in Indianapolis, at a pot-filled fraternity gathering at IU's main campus in Bloomington in 1971. Over the next 18 months or so, says Kimberlin, he met with Quayle 15 to 20 times and sold him small amounts of marijuana. (The Vice President has vehemently denied ever meeting him.)

Within a few years, Kimberlin had moved into the big leagues of drug-trafficking. In 1979 he was busted in Texas in a major smuggling case. He pleaded guilty, but that was not the end of his troubles. Authorities back in Indianapolis got him convicted for setting a series of pipe bombs (one of which seriously injured a man) in the nearby town of Speedway. Kimberlin has adamantly denied the bombing charges: "I sold drugs. I didn't set bombs."

Banished to the federal prison system, Kimberlin became a model prisoner, in the process earning his college degree and becoming a noted jailhouse lawyer. In July 1988, after Kimberlin had served nine years, a parole board recommended that he be released in 1993. A month later, George Bush picked Quayle as his running mate. With some trepidation, Kimberlin, who was then at the federal prison in El Reno, Okla., decided to talk to Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio in October 1988 and tell her of his alleged dealings with Quayle. As word leaked out about the accusation, an official at El Reno announced on Nov. 4 that Kimberlin would be available at a press conference at 7 P.M. that evening, four days before the election. But hours before the session was to start, J. Michael Quinlan, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, ordered it canceled.

That evening, Kimberlin was taken from his cell, handcuffed, strip-searched and placed overnight in a special 6-foot-by-4-foot detention chamber. Quinlan said at the time that this had been done to ensure Kimberlin's safety. Kimberlin insists he had never been in any danger, and three days later, when he tried to arrange an election-eve conference call with reporters in Washington, he was again thrown in "the hole." Upon his release seven days later, he was told that a higher panel had ordered that he not be paroled until 1998.

This past May, Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, saw a news article on the Kimberlin case and told his staff to look into the alleged muzzling incidents (but not the original accusations of marijuana use by Quayle). Investigators concluded that Quinlan had tried "to isolate Kimberlin for political purposes." While there is no evidence so far that anyone in the Bush-Quayle camp put pressure on Quinlan to stifle Kimberlin, or that any influence was brought to bear on the parole board, it is known that four years ago prison officials did brief Republican campaign brass on developments. (A Quayle aide last week dismissed the Levin report as "politically motivated.") For his part, Kimberlin, whose parole dale has since been pushed up to 1994, says he doesn't hold the Vice President personally responsible for his plight. "I'm not into conspiracy theories," he says.

BILL HEWITT
BILL SHAW in Memphis

  • Contributors:
  • Bill Shaw.