Friday, May 13, 2005

Burning Down the House

Former county insider Calvin Williams says he will dish dirt in upcoming book.

Posted By on Fri, May 13, 2005 at 4:00 AM

During the Watergate hearings more than 30 years ago, a senator told a story, probably apocryphal, about a man who was stopped by a cop for going 70 mph in a 65-mph zone while cars sped by at 80 or 90 mph.

"Why'd you stop me?" the driver wailed, motioning at the other cars. "Because you're the only one we could catch," said the officer.

Two former Shelby County employees, Calvin Williams and Shep Wilbun, were scheduled to go on trial this week for official misconduct, but the case was suddenly dropped Tuesday during the second day of jury selection. Defense attorneys and prosecutors concluded that a jury was likely to find a violation of county policy but no crime.

Williams says the worst offenders are going scot-free. He plans to name them in a tell-all book coming out in June. Its title: How I Sold My Soul to the Devil: Shelby County Politics and Its Unforgiving Sins.

Waiting for jury selection to begin Monday, Williams said the book is "not a joke" and he wrote it by himself based on personal experience and documented evidence. Chapter titles include "Drugs, Sex, and Deception," "The Wicked Witches of the Commission," "Justice Wasn't Blind," and "And They Call Themselves Mayors." The latter, he said, refers to Jim Rout, Willie Herenton, and A C Wharton.

Williams was chief administrator for the Shelby County Commission from 1998 to 2003. He started his government career in the circuit court clerk's office, ran unsuccessfully for clerk in 1994, and rode the Republican tide into the commission job, where his salary went from $39,504 to $101,800 in seven years. He couldn't have made it, of course, without a lot of help from commissioners and former commissioners such as Democrats Walter Bailey and Cleo Kirk and Republicans Buck Wellford and Bill Gibbons.

Williams was a black Republican activist. The County Commission has six black members who are Democrats and seven white members who are Republicans. By the political arithmetic of Shelby County, Williams split the difference and maintained the uneasy near-equilibrium. His official duties included doing personal favors for commissioners and helping them fill out expense forms. His unofficial duties apparently involved abetting official misconduct involving sex, drugs, and bribery.

Williams has a temper and got into some well-publicized spats with circuit court clerk Jimmy Moore and assessor Rita Clark. He once said of Moore, "He wouldn't spit on me if I was on fire, and I wouldn't ask him to." In a memo to commissioners at the time he was forced out in 2003, he vowed to "retaliate to the fullest." It is widely known that he has written a book, and he says he has been threatened.

"I'm the only one who can pull the plug on it," he said. "Not even death can stop it."

We'll see. Whatever he does, Williams has probably made some people wet their pants. A volcano has been bubbling under county government since at least 2000, when the county's former finance director went to prison for embezzlement. Auditors, state and federal prosecutors, and grand juries have looked at credit-card and expense-account abuse. The key witness against Williams and Wilbun is Darrell Catron, who pleaded guilty in January 2003 to federal charges of embezzlement while he was working for Wilbun in the Shelby County Juvenile Court clerk's office. The questionable acts took place in 2000 and 2001.

Williams, Wilbun, and James Sellers were charged with being partners in a scheme to buy the silence of a female employee in Wilbun's office about a sexual assault by Catron. They were being prosecuted by special prosecutor John Overton because Gibbons recused himself. Wilbun professed his innocence Monday in a brief meeting with reporters and blamed his troubles on an unnamed "someone with political motives."

Wilbun got the Juvenile Court clerk job in 2000, thanks to Shelby County's byzantine politics. He is a former Memphis City Council member and Shelby County commissioner who twice sought to become city mayor. He was appointed clerk by getting one white Republican vote -- from then Commissioner Clair VanderSchaaf -- in addition to the six black Democratic commissioners. In exchange, Tom Moss, a white Republican, was appointed to the County Commission.

It sounds like so much inside-baseball, but this is the way county government operates and one of the things that is the matter with it. Sex and drugs have always been off-limits to reporters unless someone makes a public confession or files a lawsuit. Much is rumored, some is known, little is reported. If Williams has more than gossip and if it involves criminal activity, then his book will be a bigger deal than his trial. •

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