WRAL Investigates

Jesse Helms' FBI file: Death threats, spying and vote-buying accusations

Posted May 26, 2010
Updated May 27, 2010

— Death threats, spying and vote-buying accusations are all included in the nearly 1,600 pages of just-released FBI documents into the life of the late Jesse Helms.

The WRAL Investigates team filed a Freedom of Information Act request last year to get the files on North Carolina's longest-serving senator. Helms died on July 4, 2008, at 86 after years of declining health.

The documents show the former five-term U.S. senator had plenty of enemies and that he thought his own government was one of them.

Helms' contemporaries react to contents of FBI file Helms' contemporaries react to contents of FBI file

During his 30 years in the Senate, Helms built a career as a powerful and sometimes polarizing leader. To some, he was the champion of the conservative movement. To others, he was a champion of bigotry as he opposed the women's, civil and gay rights movements.

The FBI file contains hundreds of pages of death threats made against Helms. One says Helms should be found hanging from a tree the next time he comes to North Carolina. Another claims to be from the Progressive Labor Party of Chicago and threatens to kill him. Another claims that Helms was linked to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In some cases, the threat-makers were interviewed and determined to be harmless. Others were sent to prison.

Helms even thought he was targeted by the government. In a 1986 letter to then-Attorney General Edwin Meese, he asked for an investigation into unnamed agencies, accusing them of following him on a trip to Chile and leaking information to the media. A Helms staff member told FBI agents there was also speculation that Helms' office on Capitol Hill was bugged.

The FBI also looked into accusations that Helms' office paid members of the black community $50 each to not vote in the 1978 election, when Helms faced heated opposition from Democrat John Ingram.

An unnamed source gave a written and typed letter to agents detailing rumors that the Helms camp gave $10,000 to former Raleigh Mayor Clarence Lightner to distribute to the black community so they would stay home on election day. The sources for those rumors are unknown.

After looking into the voting fraud accusations for a few days, the FBI closed the investigation without taking any action.

Lightner's son, Bruce Lightner, released a statement to the media Wednesday and said he had reviewed the FBI documents. He called the accusations against his father "ridiculous and absurd to the furthest degree possible."

"I can say, without any reservation or equivocation whatsoever that my Dad would never do anything to suppress anyone from voting. My Daddy, like most African Americans did not like or agree with anything Jesse Helms stood for. Period," Lightner said in a statement.

Read Bruce Lightner's full statement.

The FBI's documents also mention Helms' attempt to unseal the FBI's record on Martin Luther King Jr. so the senator could decide whether to vote for a federal holiday in honor of the slain civil rights leader.

Another page in the FBI file shows Ku Klux Klan members were trying to raise money for Helms so he would speak to their group, but no follow-up report is included in the file.

Among the many documents is a 43-page file that notes Helms was willing to assist the FBI while he was employed as executive vice president, vice chairman of the board and assistant CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Company, the parent company of WRAL-TV and WRAL.com.

He was named an official "contact" for the FBI field office in Charlotte in the early 70s.

"Mr. Helms is most cooperative and has offered the facilities of his station to assist the FBI at any time," according to the documents. "He is a great admirer of the Director (J. Edgar Hoover) and the FBI and for a long period of time has been a staunch defender of the Director and his policies."

Helms worked at WRAL prior to serving in the U.S. Senate. Once he became a senator, he was no longer an official "contact" for the FBI, according to the records.

All together, the nearly 1,600 pages give a behind-the-scenes snapshot at the life of North Carolina's most controversial politician.

The FBI keeps files on thousands of people, including politicians, famous people and others, which are all a matter of public record. The organization has an electronic reading room online, which has files related to:


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  • wildcat May 27, 2010

    He is dead and we should all allow him to rest in peace. Why bother with him now when it should have been done or said when he was alive. Gee, the man cannot even defend himself.

  • todd23 May 27, 2010

    If we were all judged based on unfounded accusations made by other people, no one would trust anybody. What's more, in the criminal justice system you're innocent until proven guilty. In the media, you're as guilty as the seriousness of the charge, however unfounded.

  • HarleyMan66 May 27, 2010

    Jesse, and his mindset, was set back in the 1960's, and that is where he should have stayed. This man was nothing but a trouble maker, pure and simple, and and I doubt if he is resting in peace.

  • Ladybug May 27, 2010

    What does it matter now - he's dead and gone. Let him rest in peace as well as his family.

  • Barely May 27, 2010

    The questions that are not answered in this "report":
    - How is the idea that some of the government's more clandestine agencies might be investigating you, a paranoid suspicion that the government is out to get you? Suspicion of agencies following you doesn't mean you think the entire government is out to bring you down.
    - What is the reasoning behind Helms' suspicion that he was being followed and bugged. The reporting makes it seem as though he was just paranoid without reasoning. I am sure the reason is stated.
    - Why is it reportable that he wanted MLK's file opened? At the time, there were rampant suspicions that King was tied to the communists among other organizations with questionable agendas. Plenty of people searched his file. This doesn't mean MLK was a part, but that people wanted to be sure.
    - Why is the part about him being an FBI contact buried way at the end of the article?

  • Unbroken May 27, 2010

    It's all about the money and we are a bunch of lemmings who are all too willing to be pawns to it. Do you really think that WRAL, Fox, MSNBC or whomever else REALLY cares about the left, right, or in-between? Pu-lease. All that matters is the bottomline and if some far-right or far-left lunatic spewing mularkey is going to bring in the readers/viewers... then full steam ahead.

    The title of this article is clearly a hack job. I am defintitely not a fan of Jesse Helms, but that much is clear to me. Do you really think WRAL cares? As long as they see 100+ posts on the article... then heck no!

    So grow up and stop saying that this is some huge conspiracy. And stop disparaging a man that can no longer defend himself. The outrage should be vented at companies/media outlets who fan the emotional flames, drive a wedge between that which connects us as Americans, all in the name of the bottomline.

    Have a great Memorial Day weekend and remember why we have it.

  • nanny May 27, 2010

    This is past disgusting-there should be more in Congress just like him and our country wouldn't be in such a mess-too many liberals-anything goes now-we have to be politically correct-well I for one, admired the man and he took a stand even if it wasn't popular-he was a man of great integrity and stood up for what he believed in and what was right-it's just shameful. Let him rest in peace-he served North Carolina well.

  • Cricket at the lake May 27, 2010

    Leave Jessie alone, he had the strength of his convictions and said what he meant, know matter how painful that truth was.

  • Barely May 27, 2010

    I hate how there's always a big expose on people after they have passed away and can't defend themselves. That way, history can be rewritten without any refuting evidence. Elvis, JFK, Sinatra, etc. Today, being dead and famous makes you an easy target. I hope the Helms relatives sue.

  • FVHowler May 27, 2010

    WRAL: This is nothing more than media grave robbing! But since you feel its your duty to dig up info on dead people, I'm sure we will see future reports on the FBI files of MLK and the whole Kennedy clan.