Friday, June 3, 2005

Celebrity Scandal?

Former friends play key roles in busting a political scandal.

Posted By on Fri, Jun 3, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Tim Willis and Calvin Williams used to be friends and business partners until they had an angry breakup. Now both of them are budding writers — and, boy, do they have some stories to tell.
Investigations of official misconduct and government-for-sale allegations are sending shock waves across Tennessee and have put both men in the news. Willis, a former county employee of the Juvenile Court Clerk’s Office and the Assessor’s Office, was working undercover for the FBI when he posed as a representative of a sham company called E-Cycle Management in secretly taped and recorded conversations with Senator John Ford. The meetings were part of a sting operation called the Tennessee Waltz. Ford and four other current and former state lawmakers were indicted last week, and Ford has resigned.
Williams, former chief administrator for the Shelby County Commission, says his upcoming book, How I Sold My Soul to the Devil: Shelby County Politics and Its Unforgiving Sins, will make an even bigger splash when it comes out this summer.
“E-Cycle is child’s play compared to what’s in this book,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “The things in the book are 10 times worse than what’s going on right now. You are going to be shocked.”
Of course Williams, who has no experience as an author or journalist, might be using the media to hype a book that hasn’t come out yet, and that could be a tough sell outside of Memphis in any case. But there is a case for taking him seriously. For one thing, the Flyer contacted him, and he was reluctant to do an interview. He was at the center of events in Shelby County government when rumors of corruption were running rampant, and he was scheduled to go on trial himself two weeks ago on state charges of official misconduct when the trial was abruptly aborted. And 20 years ago, another Tennessee political scandal involving clemency for cash was juicy enough to attract the attention of filmmakers and author Peter Maas and make a celebrity out of an obscure government employee named Marie Ragghianti, who was played by Sissy Spacek in the movie Marie.
Williams says he names names and gives dates in his book, which he plans to follow with a sequel. In light of the allegations of casual corruption and numerous payoffs to public officials in the indictments, Williams could very well have some hot stuff.
“No question, a lot of the things in this book are indictable,” he said.
Federal prosecutors would not comment when asked if Williams has testified before a federal grand jury investigating public corruption, although Williams himself made that claim several months ago after leaving the federal building.
Williams says E-Cycle Management, the sham company set up in the FBI sting operation, is mentioned throughout the book. He also said there is an entire chapter devoted to Willis, a likable if enigmatic political insider who has suddenly disappeared. A former colleague of Willis, Nashville public-relations specialist Joe Hall, says Willis was an aspiring screenwriter, and it would not surprise him if Willis is working on a screenplay right now. Hall’s former employer, the Ingram Group, was partners with Willis on the public-relations campaign on behalf of the Memphis Grizzlies and the Public Building Authority.
Williams says he fell out with Willis in their consulting business “because he had too many people with their hands in the cookie jar.” According to Williams, a current member of the Memphis City Council and a current member of the Shelby County Commission “were using him [Willis] as a bag man.” He would not name them but said he will in the book. He said he was aware that Willis was working with the FBI before that became public.
“I don’t agree with Tim’s tactics, but I understand why he did what he did,” said Williams. “You will always remember the name Tim Willis in this town.”
Willis’ former boss, Shelby County assessor Rita Clark, liked Willis, who worked for the office in the late 1990s on the 2000 property reappraisal.
“He seemed like a perfectly honest, nice young man,” she said. After Willis left the office and was working for Clark’s opponent, Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks, in a campaign for assessor, Willis and Clark met at a party.
“He came up and kissed me on the cheek,” she said. “Then he walked across the room and said to somebody, ‘We are going to beat her.’”
A few years ago, Willis amiably told me I had presented an incomplete picture of him in stories I had written. We agreed to talk about it at my office the next week. I never heard from him again.

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