NEW ORLEANS – David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader and politician who spent the past three years overseas preaching "white survival," pleaded guilty Wednesday to bilking his supporters and cheating on his taxes.
Duke, 52, could get up to 15 months in prison and $10,000 in fines under a plea bargain reached with federal prosecutors. He is free on bail until his sentencing March 19.
The plea to felony charges also disqualifies Duke from running for public office again.
He pleaded guilty to mail fraud and filing a false return shortly after the indictment was filed Wednesday. The plea came two days after Duke returned to Louisiana from abroad to negotiate with prosecutors.
Duke said little in court and would not discuss details of the case outside the courthouse. "I appreciate the tremendous amount of support I've received from people all over the nation," he said.
He did not answer when asked if his supporters could still trust him. But through a spokesman later, Duke said he did not hear the question.
"Certainly his friends and supporters understand the position he is in and they have trusted him over the years," said the spokesman, Vincent Breeding. "And when this is all over and done with he will have a tremendous amount to say."
Duke was accused of telling supporters he was in financial straits, then misusing the money they sent him from 1993 to 1999. He was also accused of filing a false 1998 tax return claiming he made only $18,831 in 1998 when he really made more than $65,000.
Duke used the money for personal investments and gambling trips to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Las Vegas and the Bahamas, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said. Letten would not disclose the amount but said it was "in the six-figure area."
The agreement does not require Duke to refund the money. Letten said the contributions were as small as $5, and there were so many that returning the money would be "unwieldy."
Duke attorney Jim McPherson said he did not believe the government had enough evidence to convict Duke, but feared "some jurors would convict him because of who he is."
The Justice Department also investigated Duke for possible income tax violations involving the $100,000 sale of a list of Duke supporters to Gov. Mike Foster in 1995. But Letten said there was no evidence of a crime, and the investigation has been closed.
Duke had just started a speaking tour in Russia in January 2000 when federal agents raided his home in Mandeville, La. A search warrant, based on testimony from confidential informants, alleged Duke took hundreds of thousands of dollars he solicited from supporters and gambled the money away.
Until his return to the country late last week, Duke had been lecturing and speaking in European countries in a crusade for "white survival" against Jews and non-Europeans.
Duke was elected to the Louisiana House in 1989 and ran second for the U.S. Senate in 1990 and governor in 1991 after claiming to have jettisoned his racist views. He placed third in a 1999 congressional race in suburban New Orleans.