Friday, October 31, 2003

Stealth News

A closer look at MATA's "savings" and the Civil Rights Museum's "awards."

Posted By on Fri, Oct 31, 2003 at 4:00 AM

There was a good piece on 60 Minutes last week about undercover or "stealth" marketing. The segment showed how marketers plant paid actors or hip young shills in coffee shops, bars, and Internet chat rooms to subtly tout video-game accessories, cigarettes, vodka, or new movies and create a buzz about the product.

Some of the people interviewed afterward by CBS correspondent Morley Safer said the pitch was so low-key that they didn't even know they were being pitched.

As marketing goes, so goes the news business. The corruption of news occurs not by a few sweeping decisions but by a lot of little ones. Two cases in point:

Two weeks ago MATA announced at a press conference that it had saved taxpayers $19 million by building a trolley link from downtown to the corner of Madison and Cleveland in Midtown for $55 million instead of the budgeted $74 million. Will Hudson, president and general manager of MATA, credited the "savings" to "good contracts" even though the project still lacks station shelters and overhead power lines.

The daily newspaper and all of the local television stations bit on the story and gave it prominent play. All agreed that the "savings" was the news. Not one of them took a closer look at the project to see whether the trolley extension is warranted at all or whether the savings could have been much greater.

In fact, at least part of the project appears to be wasteful. This is the first stage of a proposed light-rail line from downtown to the airport. Two routes have been studied. One would go through Overton Square and the Cooper-Young District and along Airways. The other would turn south at Pauline and follow Lamar to Airways.

Due to objections from Midtown businesses, MATA now leans toward the Lamar route. In that case, extending the line along Madison beyond Pauline was unnecessary, especially the costly bridgework over Interstate 240. Instead of linking downtown to an entertainment district in Overton Square, the new line simply ends in a Midtown no-man's-land just east of Stewart Brothers Hardware Store. Need a box of nails, Downtowners? MATA has got you covered.

The savings pitch is supposed to make MATA look like a lean, mean machine as it ponders the much longer extension to the airport, which could cost as much as $400 million. The project was conceived when the federal government picked up 80 percent of the tab, but these days, according to MATA's planning director Tom Fox, the competition is tougher, dollars are scarce, and the federal match (if you get it) is more like 50 percent. That would leave local and state taxpayers on the hook for $200 million plus operating deficits.

It would have taken no more than 30 seconds of television time or four column inches of type for the mainstream media to have pointed this out, to film an empty trolley (several of them pass the Flyer's office every hour), or to examine the relative merits of buses. But all were blinded by the trolley "savings." That's a nice piece of stealth public relations by MATA and its press agents.

The second stealth story was fairly obvious and probably harmless but still worth noting. On Tuesday, the National Civil Rights Museum honored former President Bill Clinton and former Memphis NAACP leader Maxine Smith with its 2003 Freedom Awards.

This annual event, while surely less partisan than the recent fat-cat Memphis fund-raiser for Vice President Dick Cheney, is essentially a Democratic Party pep rally. Previous recipients of the award include former President Jimmy Carter. Gerald Ford and George Bush need not hold their breath. The event sponsors are free to call the $50,000 they gave Clinton an "award" or anything else, but journalists should call it what it is: an appearance fee. Clinton lives large and has big bills. Does anyone think he would have come for free?

Maxine Smith is a giant in post-World War II Memphis history, but like all such people, a complex and controversial one. Armed with an elite college education, she could have chosen the comfortable life of a society lady. Instead, she plunged into the raging controversies over civil rights and school desegregation.

The desegregation of the city schools, beginning with 13 brave black children in 1961, is more accurately described 42 years later as desegregation and resegregation. The busing policy advocated by Smith, the federal court, and the NAACP drove more than 28,000 white students -- some racist, some not -- from the system in 1973-74 and changed neighborhoods and growth patterns forever. A well-deserved toast to Maxine Smith, but her legacy is more complex than the banquet coverage would have you think.

The late great Commercial Appeal editor Mike Grehl used to tell reporters to beware of stories that walk in the door. Updating that maxim to include faxes, e-mails, and phone calls -- that's some advice well worth $50,000.

E-mail: branston@memphisflyer.com

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Without Borders

21 Grams closes the New York Film Festival.

Posted By on Thu, Oct 23, 2003 at 4:00 AM

”There are no walls in the ocean," Alejandro Iñárritu says about the international flavor of his latest film, 21 Grams. Indeed, these words -- a paraphrase of an old proverb from his native country of Mexico -- seem to grasp the intent of this picture, which closed this year's New York Film Festival.

The film's title, 21 Grams, refers to the weight that the body loses at death -- supposedly the weight of the human soul and, incidentally, the same weight as a hummingbird or a bar of chocolate. The film follows three people whose lives are thrown together by tragedy as they discover how truly heavy those 21 grams can be.

Paul Rivers, an ailing college professor, is played by Sean Penn in what may be the most moving role of his career. Through guilt and redemption, Rivers envelops, with an almost Byronic outlook, the dark shadows that hang over him, destroying yet simultaneously sustaining his hopeless world. The unfortunate consequence of Penn's exceptional performance, however, is that he manages to eclipse co-stars Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro. Watts plays Christine Peck, a grieving mother who struggles with an overplayed drug addiction. Del Toro, as Jack Jordan, is a convict turned convert, spouting Bible verses left and right with lackluster conviction. Their characters are simply unable to command the same sympathy as Penn's role, even to the point of leaving the audience cold at times.

However, the film still manages to hold up under the disparities of its actors, deriving much of its artistic sensibility from its strikingly unique narrative style. Much like Iñárritu's first film, the internationally acclaimed Amores Perros, the story of 21 Grams is told not chronologically but in what Iñárritu asserts is a more universally accessible timeline of human emotion. The film flows with the tensions and crises of its characters, beginning with a relatively laid-back pace and smooth visual presentation then evolving, unrestricted by time, into the grainy pictures of conflict and internal struggle.

This approach to filmmaking -- the attempt at provoking the audience with a film whose visual and emotional qualities might surpass the simple words of its characters -- is a style that is becoming associated with the Mexican director.

Even before the completion of Amores Perros, Iñárritu began drafting the script for 21 Grams with longtime friend and collaborator Guillermo Arriaga. The two initially wrote the script in their native Spanish, but, as the story developed, they began to consider producing the film in the United States. Iñárritu described the final decision to develop the film in English as an attempt to expand beyond the borders of any one nation. "There was never a preconceived concept," he said at a press conference. "I wanted to tell the story the best way I could, [and] the English language is a universal code."

Similarly, Iñárritu chose Memphis as a backdrop because he thought the city could provoke that borderless experience he was after. The director described the city as having an identity all its own: "Memphis is unique -- the heart of America with a nostalgic sad feeling, [yet] it reminds me a little bit of a Latin American city." Production designer Brigitte Broch, another Amores Perros alum, described the city's versatility: Memphis "is history, authenticity, and soul. There were different layers of textures. We wanted the environments of each character to talk for them, and Memphis had what we needed."

But Memphis had more to offer than simple scenery. As Memphians scan the eclectic images on-screen, they might stumble upon more familiar faces than expected. From diners enjoying their meals at the Arcade restaurant to health enthusiasts working out in Grace-St. Luke's gym, Iñárritu strove to cast extras who could, whenever possible, actually be what they were portraying. Returning Amores Perros cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto described the resulting images as "realism with an edge."

The final product, Iñárritu said, has "the smell of the city" -- the essence of Memphis playing perfectly into the wide-reaching themes of loss, love, obligation, and faith. But, Prieto explained, "We didn't want this to be 'Memphis, Tennessee,' where the story is happening, but any place in America -- or in the world, even. That is the atmosphere and texture of this city."

Thanks, But No Thanks

Logan Young gets a target letter from the U.S. attorney.

Posted By on Thu, Oct 23, 2003 at 4:00 AM

University of Alabama football booster Logan Young declined an invitation to meet with a federal grand jury this week and now expects to be indicted as early as this month in a recruiting investigation that has gone on for more than two years.

"My attorney got a letter last Friday asking me to talk to the grand jury, which I'm not going to do," said Young, reached by the Flyer last week on vacation in Florida.

Asked why not, Young said, "Nobody does that. My lawyer says just don't do it."

Young characterized the letter as a "target letter" which generally indicates that an indictment is going to be presented to the grand jury. Young's attorneys, Louis Allen and John Pierotti, both declined to comment. U.S. attorney Terry Harris also declined comment.

The news comes as a backdrop to the Alabama-Tennessee football game in Tuscaloosa Saturday. Both teams are having disappointing years, but their partisans have spent the two weeks leading up to the game gleefully exchanging insults, accusations of cheating, and even threats of violence in various fan forums.

Young, a Memphis businessman and fanatical Alabama fan, has stated his innocence ever since he was publicly identified as the alleged source of a $200,000 payment to Lynn Lang, Albert Means' former football coach at Trezevant High School, to get Means to enroll at Alabama. The Flyer has learned that the amount at issue is now around $50,000.

Lang pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge last year and has been awaiting sentencing. The university formally disassociated itself from Young. In open court, Lang said former Alabama assistant coaches Ronnie Cottrell and Ivy Williams were also involved. Young said he believes Williams will be subpoenaed to testify to the grand jury this week.

Attorney Philip Shanks, who represents Williams and Cottrell in a suit filed last December against the NCAA and University of Alabama officials, declined to comment about subpoenas to either man.

Despite Young's denials and his behind-the-scenes role in the countersuit against the NCAA and Alabama officials, there has been an air of inevitability about his eventual indictment. Lang has changed his story a couple of times, and the amount of the alleged payment has varied from $200,000 to $120,000 in newspaper reports. There have been persistent rumors of bag men and money laundering at Tunica casinos. But Young has always been the money man in every scenario. With the events in question now three years old, the feds and lead prosecutor Fred Godwin either have to indict him or back down, leaving them with two small fry -- Lang and his former assistant coach and self-described whistleblower Milton Kirk -- but no big fish for their considerable trouble.

It isn't easy to continuously hype an old story that came out of the box characterized by Kirk as "slave trading" and by prosecutors and The Commercial Appeal as the recruiting scandal of the century, but various interested parties are doing their best to provide fresh intrigue, trash talk, and hints of violence.

Radio sports programs and Internet bulletin boards for Alabama and University of Tennessee fans were buzzing last week with rumors and rants about possible indictments and scandalous allegations involving UT football.

Attorney Tommy Gallion of Montgomery, Alabama, accused UT coach Philip Fulmer of involvement in securing bank loans for star UT football players while they were still in college. Fulmer denied it and threatened to sue. The charges merited only a couple of wire-service stories in the CA, which claims a proprietary interest in the Lynn Lang story.

Shanks, a diehard Alabama fan working with Gallion on the lawsuit against the NCAA, has accused UT boosters of orchestrating a campaign to get Alabama in the media, on the Internet, and in the federal courts and NCAA office.

Shanks said somebody recently tossed a dead cat in his yard, and last week his house was burglarized and a Cottrell file was stolen. In a separate incident, he said he was followed and threatened with bodily harm by a neighbor who is a UT partisan. He filed police reports after both incidents.

Even the weekly meeting of the Touchdown Club, normally a good-natured affair, hasn't been off-limits to hard feelings. According to host Shellie McCain, last week a UT fan smarting from the Vols' loss to Georgia took offense at a joke, confronted the offending speaker, and angrily vowed to tolerate no more of it. Cooler heads prevailed and violence was averted.

At this week's meeting at Chickasaw Country Club Monday, it was mostly the standard football fare, with little mention of Young or hot scandals. An indictment or an ugly game Saturday would change that. n

Amateur Athlete's Dream: A Higher Level of Mediocrity

It's easy to laugh at sports fanatics, but for a lifelong fan, the only thing more fascinating than other people's games is our own pathetic athletic trials and exploits.

For most of my life, I never knew what my meniscus was. After two knee surgeries, I talk about it the way other people talk obsessively about their pets or their children.

The meniscus is the cartilage in the knee, sometimes likened to the knee's shock absorber. If you play sports or work on your feet, it will probably wear out or tear by the time you reach middle age, leaving you with a pronounced limp. Next comes an X-ray, MRI, arthroscopic surgery, rehab, and a medicine chest full of Vioxx, Celebrex, or Bextra.

Then you're a member of the brotherhood or sisterhood of the torn meniscus. Like strangers who discover that they went to the same high school, we instantly brighten when meeting one of our kind and launch into a detailed discussion of what ails us. This bores our friends and spouses to death, but we don't care.

Most sports injuries are far from life-threatening and usually treatable, so at least the conversation is fairly upbeat. Our injury becomes our badge of honor. We tried, we failed, but we're still trying.

And in our sports-crazed country and culture, that's right up there with love, family, and work on the Big List.

All athletes fail.

Some of us fail sooner than others, on the playground or in junior high or high school. Some make it to college. Some of those actually get to play. A few of those make the pros. But even elite athletes fail because that is the nature of sport.

The best athlete I ever knew was a high school classmate and track star, Ron Kutchinski. At a time when the top runners in the Midwest were struggling to break two minutes in the half mile, "R.K." ran a 1:53. When 54 seconds in the quarter-mile was good enough to win a lot of races, he ran a 49 flat. No rival's lead was big enough and no thrill was greater than watching him run the anchor leg in the mile relay on a dimly lighted track on a spring night with the crowd screaming.

He was unbeaten in high school. He won the Big Ten championships at the University of Michigan. In 1968 he beat the great Jim Ryun at the Olympic trials to qualify for the team that went to Mexico City.

And there he was defeated by a combination of high altitude, strange food, and superior competition. Damn virus. If only ...

If such a great athlete could lose, then what about the rest of us?

What indeed. I started playing tennis when I was 10 years old, and, even though I never got very good at it, I have been playing for more than 40 years. After college I took up racquetball, and it was pretty much the same story. Five years ago, I discovered squash, an indoor-court sport with a well-deserved reputation for elitism and obscurity.

Pretty soon I was playing four times a week, playing by myself, going out of town for tournaments, visualizing shots as I went to sleep, and watching videos or "squash porno" on my VCR.

In middle age, after trying and failing to become any good at half a dozen sports, I had achieved the fantasy jock's dream: a higher level of mediocrity.

For the men and women of the torn meniscus, that's our goal, modest as it is. We have watched, cheered at, and played in thousands of games. And sport still has us in its grip. Some say it's their therapy, their joy and camaraderie, or their way to lose weight. Frederick Exley was on to something when he wrote in A Fan's Notes that sport sustained for him "the illusion that fame was possible."

I like high-powered CEOs who knock off early to chase a tennis ball. I have to turn away so I don't boo-hoo when I watch the old fatties in the Memphis Marathon waddle up the hill near my house, five hours of painful loneliness ahead. And I like the Grizzlies, not because they will win someday but because they've lost a lot and keep trying.

They may be the best athletes on the planet, but in that sense they're just like the rest of us.

E-mail: branston@memphisflyer.com

Friday, October 17, 2003

Herenton's Next Four Years

Lots of pending appointments and some new faces will get the mayor's attention.

Posted By on Fri, Oct 17, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Lots of pending appointments and some new faces will get the mayor's attention.

JOHN BRANSTON

The election is almost a week old, so obviously it's high time to chart out the next four years. The fate of Herman Morris and The Pyramid, those frisky Fords, Dr. Carol Johnson, taxes, consolidation, some key staff vacancies, and a gender gap are some of the issues facing Mayor Willie Herenton as he winds up his third term and looks forward to his fourth.

™ MLGW: Remember the big wind storm in July? Some people at MLGW would just as soon you didn't. Two months after the big blow, MLGW still hasn't produced a simple explanation of total costs, overtime, and impact on rates for its customers or a detailed report on its storm response.

MLGW instead chose the time-tested option of appointing a committee packed with its own employees, no less to buy time until the storm is a distant memory. The committee has not yet met.

Herenton has the power to extend the expired contract of MLGW CEO Herman Morris. The terms of most board members have also expired, and Herenton must decide whether to reappoint them. In the days following the storm, the mayor seemed a bit distant from Morris, but the longer he holds on, the better his chances.

™ Box out future rivals: Sure, the next city mayoral election is four years away, but that's within the planning timetable of serious politicians. And there are some serious politicians on the City Council or involved in runoffs. Republican George Flinn and Democrat Carol Chumney, vying in District 5, have both already made runs for county mayor and would likely use a council seat as a stepping stone to something bigger.

Current members of the council who, based on past behavior, also might harbor mayoral dreams include Myron Lowery, Jack Sammons, and Brent Taylor.

™ Groom a successor: Again, assuming this is his last term, Herenton could give a potential successor a leg up with a key appointment in his administration, favorable treatment on the council, or some kind words and contributions from his well-stocked campaign larder.

The mayor's sons Rodney and Duke are successful businessmen. Neither has expressed an interest in politics yet, but it's not as if genes don't matter in Memphis where names like Ford, Hooks, and Bailey show up with regularity.

™ Make appointments: Four city division directors have announced they are leaving: Donnie Mitchell of Public Services, Clint Buchanan of Emergency Management, Chester Anderson at the Fire Department, and Butch Eder at General Services.

Others could be asked to leave. Chief administrative officer Keith McGee still has that nagging "interim" attached to his title and has had a hard time following veteran Rick Masson. The CAO is the mayor's liaison with the council. Last week, the council rebuffed McGee on a big Motorola contract, a police firing range, a downtown tax proposal, and a collective bargaining measure.

At the Park Commission, Wayne Boyer seems to be popular with the mayor but he has health problems and his job has shrunk due to privatization. Playground and golf-course maintenance, anyone? Look for some action on the long-dormant fairgrounds and for the Skinner Center for the Disabled to move downtown.

There is a notable shortage of women in the top ranks of the Herenton administration. Gail Jones Carson is the mayor's spokesman and Sara Hall heads the personnel department. That's it. Herenton is too good a politician to leave it that way.

™ Reach out to new MCS superintendent Carol Johnson. Herenton can't continue to make disparaging cracks about the school board and insist that the only solution is consolidation with Shelby County. On second thought, he can, but the board survived the election pretty much intact and Johnson has to work with them.

One giant consolidated school system headed by Johnson and four or five assistant superintendents? Maybe some day, but Johnson has more immediate concerns, and a decade of diplomacy and acrimony between city and county have produced nothing.

™ Big downtown decisions. The City Council voted 12-1 against a plan to create a special tax district for downtown, but the Center City Commission and their friends at the daily newspaper seem to think the proposal should come back.

Herenton stayed in the background, in contrast to Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, who wrote a supportive letter that was passed out to the City Council. Council members noticed and voted accordingly.

The Pyramid could be starting its final season as home of the U of M Tigers. There will be council resistance to letting the Tigers out of their lease, assuming there is no alternative user. In the crunch, the question could be whether the mayor or council has the power to enforce the contract. ™

E-mail: branston@MemphisFlyer.com

Friday, October 10, 2003

Waiting for the Other Shoe

Federal investigations of local government overshadow elections.

Posted By on Fri, Oct 10, 2003 at 4:00 AM

It's election week, but, more importantly, it's investigations month.

Criminal investigations of public officials trump elections, even big ones, which this one is not. A little over a year ago, A C Wharton was elected county mayor. Popular, energetic, and with a fresh agenda, Wharton has been preoccupied with various investigations of county officials almost since the day he took office -- Tom Jones, county credit cards, travel expenses, moonlighting, nepotism, Medical Examiner Dr. O.C. Smith.

It's a long way from over. Jones suggested there was a "culture of entitlement" in which members of the previous county administration helped themselves to benefits and perks. There is now a culture of investigation.

Four federal grand juries are meeting this month. The sleeping giant across the mall in the federal building -- the United States Attorney's Office -- is the most active in political corruption cases since the trial of U.S. Rep. Harold Ford 10 years ago. Grand-jury proceedings are secret, but it's known that one is looking at the Smith case and another has returned indictments against a gang of thieves and drug dealers operating out of the Memphis Police Department's property and evidence room.

A federal grand jury, unlike a state grand jury, is a powerful investigative tool well-suited to uncovering layers of corruption or, some say, political vendettas. Another grand jury, along with state auditors, has been investigating the office of the Juvenile Court clerk under former clerk Shep Wilbun. Wilbun's top aide, Darrell Catron, pleaded guilty in January to a federal charge of embezzlement and has been cooperating with prosecutors. His friend Calvin Williams was booted as chief administrator for the County Commission earlier this year and has testified before the grand jury.

Meanwhile, Jones, a top aide to former county mayor Jim Rout, is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to embezzlement in a separate federal case. Prosecutors, presumably, are negotiating his sentence, already postponed once, based on the amount of money misspent and other information Jones might give them.

That's a lot of key people and county institutional memory -- not to mention a lot of grudges -- at the disposal of federal investigators and prosecutors. For current or recently departed county officials with skeletons in their closets, sleep could be fitful for a while.

Federal investigations of political corruption often set off a daisy chain of events that can take months or years to play out as former associates turn on one another, sparking more investigations. In a county government narrowly divided along racial and political party lines, there's a "one of ours for one of theirs" mentality as well. Add to that the fact that the Shelby County district attorney, Bill Gibbons, is a former member of the City Council and the County Commission and an active Republican. And the United States attorney, Terrell Harris, is a former colleague of Gibbons in the state prosecutor's office.

Add it all up, and there hasn't been this much intrigue and sizzle in the federal building since former U.S. attorney Hickman Ewing Jr. was going after (mostly) Democratic politicians and labor leaders and high-profile businessmen, gamblers, and coaches in the 1980s.

Here's a look at the investigations, where they stand, and where they're likely to go:

* As a public official, Shep Wilbun held three different jobs and twice tried to be city mayor. The transition to private citizen has not been easy.

As Juvenile Court clerk from 2000 to 2002, Wilbun is a key figure in the Catron investigation. Wilbun got the job while serving on the County Commission as the result of a backroom deal and lost it by a single percentage point in a venomous election.

Wilbun started his political career as a Memphis City Council member. He made an unsuccessful bid to be the consensus black candidate to oppose Dick Hackett for mayor in 1991. In 1994 he was elected to the Shelby County Commission (a career path also taken by Gibbons, Joe Ford, and the late James Ford). He liked to talk about the big picture whether the subject at hand was transportation, housing, downtown development, or poverty. With degrees from Dartmouth and MIT, he often spoke well and provocatively even when his ideas seemed grandiose.

He came within a whisker of being a city division director in 1996 when Willie Herenton withdrew an offer to head up the Division of Housing and Community Development. Herenton cited a city-administered housing loan of $950,000 on which Wilbun and his partners were delinquent. Wilbun said his share was only $6,000.

There were hard feelings on both sides. Wilbun suggested the mayor had deliberately embarrassed him. In 1999, Wilbun ran for city mayor against Herenton. The campaign made it clear that Herenton had little use for Wilbun. But on election night, there was Wilbun, grinning from Herenton's victory platform. It was a strange moment. The challenger had gotten 3.5 percent of the vote and finished fifth in a 15-candidate field.

Long in search of a full-time government job, Wilbun finally got one a year later. But Juvenile Court was far afield from his training in architecture and urban planning, and his sudden passion for juvenile justice and child welfare rang hollow. The complicated horse-trading that got him there involved Democrats and Republicans, notably fellow commissioner Tom Moss. Disgruntled outsiders almost immediately began plotting.

Wilbun blamed political enemies for the state and federal investigation of his office that began shortly after he took control. The publicity probably cost him the 2002 election, which he lost, 49 percent to 48 percent, to Republican Steve Stamson.

Catron has told prosecutors about county credit card abuse, bogus cash advances, and an unnamed fraudulent contractor with the clerk's office. Williams, who did all sorts of political and personal favors for commissioners in return for his $100,000 salary, has said prosecutors asked him about a $1,500 cash payment he delivered to the family of a female employee in the clerk's office who accused Catron of sexual harassment. Williams would also know how county commissioners spend public money for travel and entertainment.

* City councilman E.C. Jones, a former policeman, had the best line of the week. Commenting on the help-yourself policy of the Police Department's property room, Jones said, "Police check pawnshops regularly. It looks like they were using the property room as a pawnshop for stolen goods. Why not watch your own pawnshop?"

As FBI agents and police parade a growing number of rogues before mug-shot cameras and grand jurors, you have to wonder how this investigation can stop short of the deputy-director level at the least. City employees and council members have to fill out forms open to public scrutiny for legitimate requisitions. Casino employees who handle money are watched by cameras and layers of supervisors. But a gang of thieves had free access to cash and drugs worth millions of dollars in the "pawnshop."

So much for Mayor Herenton's "no scandals in my administration."

* The O.C. Smith case continues to attract national interest.

Dr. Michael Baden, former chief medical examiner for New York City and host of the HBO series Autopsy, talked to the Flyer last week.

Baden said Tennessee has "a long tradition of holding medical examiners in high regard and having very good medical examiners licensed as forensic pathologists." But it is not unusual for medical examiners to get in trouble.

"Over the years, medical examiners are like baseball managers. I had my problems 25 years ago with the mayor of New York. Every time we testify we step on someone's toes. What is unusual about the Smith case is the suggestion that the charges might be made up. I've testified in a lot of Mafia cases in New York in 43 years. I have never been physically attacked or verbally attacked by the bad guys," said Baden.

* While it apparently is not the subject of a grand-jury investigation, nepotism and self-dealing by county commissioners have attracted the attention of auditors and The Commercial Appeal.

A zero-tolerance policy would seem to be in line with Mayor Wharton's actions in a little-publicized case a year ago. Last November, Wharton fired Sam McCraw as administrator of support services because he had a stake in a county contract. Should county elected officials be held to a different standard?

* Finally, federal prosecutors still have the Albert Means case and football coach Lynn Lang to deal with. Lang's sentencing has been postponed twice.

Meanwhile, lawyers and University of Alabama partisans Tommy Gallion and Philip Shanks are moving ahead with their counterattack on the NCAA. Alabama plays Tennessee October 25th in Tuscaloosa. Watch for some down-and-dirty before that.

branston@memphisflyer.com

Friday, October 3, 2003

O.C. Smith Reconsidered

Wharton sees possible "Fuhrman" problem; celebrity medical examiner "very skeptical."

Posted By on Fri, Oct 3, 2003 at 4:00 AM

When he nominated Dr. O.C. Smith as chief medical examiner in 2000, Shelby County mayor Jim Rout praised him for being "accessible and available."

Right. And he's a natty dresser with an expensive haircut.

Smith, who favors hospital scrubs and a crewcut, is the focus of one of the biggest cases confronting the medical examiner's office since the death of Elvis Presley. But lately he's been more invisible than accessible, handing off cases to an assistant and answering no questions about the bizarre bomb-and-barbed-wire attack on him on June 1, 2002, or the attempted bombing of his office three months earlier.

After initially hyping the case as possibly terrorism (see chronology below), police and federal investigators have gone into no-comment mode as a federal grand jury convenes. District Attorney Bill Gibbons issues a cryptic three-sentence statement. Federal investigators say all avenues are still open. The Commercial Appeal cautions against a rush to judgment.

A slow walk to indecision is more like it. Someone puts bombs in a public building and on a public official when the country is on terror alert; elite investigators swarm over the scene, then nothing happens for 16 months. A prominent medical examiner says the case is strange even by his standards.

"I must admit I was very, very skeptical when I heard about this," Dr. Cyril Wecht, the Allegheny County (Pennsylvania) medical examiner and frequent television commentator who has testified in more than 500 murder cases, told the Flyer. "As a pathologist who has been involved in some controversial matters for 40 years, nobody has ever come close to physically assaulting me or tying me up or beating me up."

Wecht said Smith case investigators had "a lot to work with." A tenet of the trade called Locard's Principle holds that whenever there is contact between two people, there will be some transfer of some physical substance between them. The more sustained the contact, the greater the likelihood of a physical transfer, Wecht said.

"If I bind you and tie this and that around you, that takes some time," he said. "You got blood, you got threads, you got hairs. Did they ever find anything they could show came from somebody? There are some questions to be asked."

Wecht does not know Smith but has a connection to him through the Philip Workman murder case. Wecht testified for Workman's attorneys in post-conviction appeals. Smith testified for the prosecution.

Within a few months of the attack on Smith, the Flyer and presumably other local media began to get off-the-record reports of weird goings-on in Smith's office, including one about employees so fearful at work that they were packing pistols. When we tried to check them out with Smith, we were denied access by him and by Shelby County Health Department spokeswoman Brenda Ward.

The sketchy details of the attack itself were so bizarre that we thought half-seriously of trying to re-create it in our office with a bale of barbed wire, an "attacker," and a "victim." Good sense -- and fear that we did not have enough mops and buckets to clean up the likely bath of blood -- prevented this. When we finally got an investigator to talk to us, he said it was indeed strange, but the working theory was still that the Smith attacker was also the office bomber and the author of threatening letters about Smith.

Finally, last week someone pointed out the elephant at the dinner table. Given an opening by Governor Phil Bredesen, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton acted to remove Smith from office.

"Some things about the case came to my attention in the fall of last year," Wharton said. He wouldn't say exactly what or how, but his chief administrative officer is former assistant federal prosecutor John Fowlkes, and Wharton is a former public defender.

"There was a cloud over a critical player, but I couldn't even say that there was an investigation going on," Wharton said. "I was between a rock and a hard place."

He feared that whatever the facts of the Smith case, the Shelby County criminal courts could end up with something like the O.J. Simpson case where police investigator Mark Fuhrman became a big issue.

"Considering my long history in the criminal justice system, I have a responsibility to say to the County Commission that circumstances have developed that there is a great likelihood that [Dr. Smith] cannot effectively perform his duties," said Wharton.

When Bredesen delayed the execution of Philip Workman because of a 15-month-old federal investigation in West Tennessee, Wharton felt free to act. He refuses to say whether the information he has indicates a mad bomber or something else but says it makes little difference as far as the ability of the medical examiner to do his job. A bomb is a bomb, and the mayor said recent events such as the Pennsylvania "pizza bomber" made him worry about public safety as well as efficient criminal investigations and trials.

Numerous questions remain unanswered: Why did Bredesen and state attorney general Paul Summers let Workman's execution reach the 11th hour before halting it because of a 15-month-old investigation? What exactly is the relevance to O.C. Smith? And what was the purpose of the attack? "If you really hate a guy and you're really disturbed, what's the point?" asked Wecht. "If you want to harm or kill him, do it."

James Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the Smith investigation for the ATF, said this week the case is "very active and part of our everyday life. We don't forget cases after other people do." He said the theory that the same person attacked Smith, planted the bombs in the morgue, and wrote the letters is still "a major-league category" of the investigation. He said he cannot comment further until someone is charged.

A Chronology of the O.C. Smith Case

January 24, 2000: Dr. O.C. Smith, who has worked in the office since 1978 and been running it on an interim basis for six months, is named chief medical examiner.

March 2000: Death-row inmate Philip Workman is scheduled to be executed April 6th for killing Memphis police officer Ronald Oliver during an armed robbery in 1981. But Workman's attorneys present what they say is new evidence: X-rays of Oliver's body which show no evidence of a bullet or bullet fragment. Smith says he only recently learned of the existence of the X-rays, which Workman's lawyers had sought without success at trial and during post-conviction appeal. Smith turns them over to the defense team.

March 30, 2001: Workman gets an 11th-hour stay of execution from the state Supreme Court, which orders another review of the case.

April 2001: Three threatening letters are received by a newspaper reporter, police office, and private citizen. One letter says "The EVIL ONE is in the body of O.C. SMITH, souless [sic] PAWN of the DEVIL, guilty of TWO MORTAL SINS." Another calls him a "LIAR" and says he is trying to "MURDER PHILLIP [sic] R. WORKMAN," a "LAMB OF GOD."

November 2001: A judge reviews Workman's case and rules against him. Workman is sent back to death row.

March 13, 2002: Three bombs are found by a janitor in a publicly accessible stairwell of the Shelby County Regional Forensic Center, which includes Smith's office. ATF agents say one of the bombs was capable of killing "several people."

June 1, 2002: Smith is attacked outside his office and bound in barbed wire and tied to a bomb. Smith is not seriously hurt and appears briefly at a news conference but doesn't take questions. The ATF calls in its elite National Response Team.

June 4, 2002: James Cavanaugh, chief ATF agent in Tennessee, says, "Anybody who might know the perpetrator could be in danger." He says the letters, the bombs, and now the attack show the attacker is growing bolder and more dangerous.

June 5, 2002: Memphis police investigators and bomb-squad officers are interviewed for an episode of the nationally syndicated television show America's Most Wanted. Agents say it produces some "very interesting" tips.

August 18, 2002: "We're confident we can solve the case," says ATF agent Gene Marquez. The case is "our priority investigation right now." The ATF says it has evidence linking the attack to the previous bombings and threatening letters.

November 8, 2002: ATF agent Cavanaugh tells the Flyer the bomber may have gone underground like the Unabomber. He provides other details. The attacker was a lone, fleshy faced white man, 30-40 years old. He wore gloves, punched Smith in the stomach, and jumped on him, did not carry a gun or knife, and chained Smith to a window grate in a "semi-crucified" position -- all in the space of a few minutes. "Why go through these elaborate histrionics?" says Cavanaugh. "It's hard to say." Asked if the attack might have been staged, Cavanaugh says, "I've been a cop too long to not think that there might be something else. I'm open to any angles."

September 15, 2003: Nine days before Workman is scheduled to be executed, Gov. Phil Bredesen grants him a four-month reprieve, citing a pending federal investigation that started in West Tennessee 15 months ago.

September 24, 2003: Shelby County mayor A C Wharton says he intends to replace Smith. Initially, he cites a statement from district attorney Bill Gibbons, but Gibbons denies authorizing any statement about Smith. The next day, Wharton cites an opinion by the county attorney as grounds for replacing Smith.

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