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Once again, corruption is Topic A in West Tennessee

COMMENTARY | January 26, 2007

A 2-year federal investigation (including a sting with secret tapes), seven current or former elected officials involved, racism charges, and, on the reporting end, bloggers joining in as tipsters, reporters, and media critics.

By John Branston

MEMPHISBack in 1993, Memphis was buzzing over a political corruption trial featuring Congressman Harold Ford, Sr., the most powerful politician in West Tennessee for 20 years. The so-called “trial of the century,” which ended with Ford’s acquittal, was the culmination of a ten-year investigation by federal prosecutors and the FBI whose defeat arguably left them gun shy for several years.

Fourteen years later, political corruption is once again Topic A in Memphis, with an even greater vengeance than in the past, if possible.

There’s a two-year federal investigation involving seven current or former Memphis and Shelby County elected officials including two of Ford’s brothers; a controversial government sting and sensational secret tapes; charges of racism over who is targeted and who isn’t; and – unlike anything in the past – bloggers and their fans joining in as commentators, tipsters, backgrounders, media critics, and citizen reporters.

The federal courts beat that was nearly dormant in the late 1990s is once again the best in the news biz. That’s good news for reporters and bloggers but bad news for corrupt politicians and, perhaps, the civic image of Memphis.

The dam broke in May of 2005 when federal prosecutors and the FBI announced the first set of indictments in Operation Tennessee Waltz, a two-year sting involving a bogus computer-recycling company run by the FBI. The biggest name among those indicted was state senator John Ford, the brother of Harold Ford, Sr., and uncle of Harold Ford, Jr., who ran unsuccessfully for the United States Senate in 2006. Since then, another Ford brother, Memphis City Councilman Edmund Ford, has been indicted in a second ongoing federal investigation called Main Street Sweeper (Main Street being the address of the city and county government offices).

Memphis, like other cities, loves a scandal. Newspapers and television newscasts have had fresh meat monthly, weekly, and sometimes daily.  Letters to the editor are getting more space than ever, and blogs such as www.thaddeusmatthews.com and www.leftwingcracker.blogspot.com are coming into their own and sometimes turning the concepts of caution, privacy and decorum on their old-fashioned heads.

Never mind that our lone professional sports team, the Memphis Grizzlies, is in last place in the NBA standings – Memphians like to keep score. Over 60 percent of the city’s population is black, the remainder mainly white and Hispanic. So far, the 2005-2006 scorecard reads this way: eight Memphis and Shelby County politicians and public officials indicted for bribery, all black. Two of them belong to the 13-member Memphis City Council. Four of them are from politically prominent families (the Ford brothers and Michael Hooks, Sr., and Michael Hooks, Jr., the former the nephew of former NAACP leader Benjamin Hooks). Two defendants were convicted at trial, both of them black (as were a majority of the jurors). 

United States Attorney David Kustoff, a former Republican Party activist appointed by George W. Bush, has repeatedly said that justice in Memphis is color-blind. The FBI agent in charge of the Memphis office, My Harrison, is black. The lead trial attorney for the government, Tim DiScenza, is a veteran career prosecutor who has used secretly recorded audio and videotapes to devastating effect, literally letting criminality speak for itself in language once described as not fit for a family newspaper (for a sampling, go to the weekly Memphis Flyer and search “Tennessee Waltz” and undercover informant “Tim Willis.”)

Still, some people in Memphis such as red-meat blogger Thaddeus Matthews see a double standard for – take your pick here – blacks and whites in general or black buy-side politicians and white supply-side businessmen. So far, only one confessed Memphis “bag” man (black) and one corrupt Memphis lobbyist (white) have been indicted. Both are cooperating with the government. One defendant who went to trial and lost, former state senator Roscoe Dixon, got a 63-month sentence and landed in solitary confinement at an overcrowded Louisiana prison. Dixon argued that he was entrapped and his prosecution had racial overtones. Another Tennessee Waltz defendant, Michael Hooks, Sr., pleaded guilty and blamed no one but himself. He got a 26-month sentence.

Lately news media scrutiny has shifted to white politicians with admitted conflicts of interest stemming from either multi-million dollar professional services contracts or six-figure consulting fees. One of them is the current chairman of the city council while the other is a former member of the Shelby County Commission who did not run for reelection last year. Both recused themselves on certain votes after consulting with the city and county attorneys, respectively. It remains to be seen whether that is an adequate remedy under the new rules of the game.

In 1995, two years after the Ford trial, I interviewed Memphis attorney Mike Cody for an article on political corruption. He was in the unique position of having served as an elected member of the Memphis City Council, a candidate for mayor, a United States attorney, and Tennessee Attorney General. If that wasn’t enough, in college he had written a thesis entitled “An Ethical Politician?”

“During the post-Watergate era, under-the-table practices of long standing became the focus of investigation and criminal prosecution,” he said. “You found the public and juries holding politicians and public officials to a higher standard. Things were perceived as illegal that before had just been winked at.”

Those words seem more relevant than ever. In the most recent Tennessee Waltz trial, a former county administrator was convicted last month of taking a $1,500 payoff to use his influence over elected county commissioners. The administrator testified that it was a legitimate consulting fee. He had been stripped of his job four years ago and demoted to one paying $70,000 a year less.

It seemed like pretty harsh punishment at the time. But not any more.

Branston goes into more detail on Memphis politics and corruption in his 2004 book, “Rowdy Memphis.”

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