Friday, July 29, 2005

Man on Horseback

Political correctness is only one of the problems with Forrest Park.

Posted By on Fri, Jul 29, 2005 at 4:00 AM

The real problem with Forrest Park is neglect, not the equestrian statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest or the controversial name. Like many other city parks, it's a mess. The grass is knee-high and littered with trash and dead tree limbs, metal benches are bent and broken, and trees and bushes haven't been pruned in years.

Normally, few people would notice any of this because the park on Union Avenue next to the University of Tennessee Medical Center is usually empty. For the last two weeks, however, every local television station and newspaper covered the Forrest Park controversy and took pictures of the statue. The national media are likely to follow when the controversy reaches the Memphis City Council. Now suppose you are mayor of our fair city and the Memphis Park Commission answers to you. You have been a public official for 25 years and know a photo opportunity better than most television news directors. Do you make sure a crew cleans up the park? Go see.

Assuming that Willie Herenton doesn't resign, he could be voted out for apathy, if not in a recall election in 2006 then in the regular election of 2007. After nearly 14 years, the mayor simply shows no zest for the most basic duties of the job. How can Memphians have any confidence in the mayor possibly taking over MLGW, if his park commission can't cut the grass and pick up the trash in a park in the news on one of the busiest streets in town?

Lawyer/developer Karl Schledwitz, a member of the UT Board of Regents, has proposed moving Forrest's monument and grave to Elmwood Cemetery and having the city turn the park over to UT. It's about time UT asserted itself. The medical school should be allowed to develop part of the park since the park commission doesn't maintain it. A renamed, cleaned-up, and smaller park could help revitalize both UT's campus and Union Avenue, which is bordered by several blighted buildings and vacant lots between the old Baptist Hospital and AutoZone Park. University medical centers in Birmingham, St. Louis, Nashville, and Jackson, Mississippi, are hubs of new construction, street life, and restaurants. The only restaurant near the UT Medical Center in Memphis is a McDonald's.

Memphis has been in national newspapers and magazines a lot this summer thanks to Nathan Bedford Forrest, Craig Brewer's movie Hustle & Flow, International Paper's possible headquarters relocation, and the residential growth of Harbor Town, Uptown, and South End. Not all of the news reports have been positive. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted last week, Toyota shunned pitches from Southern locales and will instead put a new plant in Ontario. Memphis and eastern Arkansas - unlike Middle Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Kentucky - have made no headway in the car chase. As Krugman wrote, "Japanese auto companies opening plants in the Southern U.S. have been unfavorably surprised by the work force's poor level of training." Focus groups interviewed for an upcoming Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce report made similar comments.

Although Herenton sometimes seems as burned out as a Fourth of July firecracker, he and the chamber have a chance to close a bragging-rights deal with International Paper, which will make a decision within 30 days. More than 2,000 other IP employees relocated to Memphis or were hired here since 1987.

Dexter Muller, a former city division director and interim CEO of the chamber, said, "We have to deal with it as a competition. This is too important to take for granted."

The incentives package is likely to include moving costs for at least some of the 134 Stamford, Connecticut, employees, which Muller said can be as much as $30,000 per employee. IP's executive compensation has been under fire from shareholder activists. Former CEO John Dillon, who retired in 2003, got $15.2 million in his last year, or 595 times the average U.S. worker's salary of $25,500. His successor, John Faraci, made $4,884,333 in 2004. IP's stock has been a laggard. A $100 investment in 1999 was worth $85 five years later. Paper industry peer group stocks were worth $113.

Wonder what the IP honchos and their wives will make of the gritty scenes in Hustle & Flow, or Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority Chairman Arnold Perl's recent crack that Memphis minus FedEx is Shreveport.

Trivia note: The president of IP when the company moved to Memphis in 1987 was Paul O'Neill, later Treasury Secretary under President George W. Bush, whom he famously described in a book as being "like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people." n

Friday, July 22, 2005

Picture of Guilt?

Feds link Memphis Muslim to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.<

Posted By on Fri, Jul 22, 2005 at 4:00 AM

It's a picture that Rafat Mawlawi probably wishes now that he had burned or thrown away. But, for whatever reason, he kept it in his Raleigh home, where it was seized in a raid by the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force in April. And today it's one of the main reasons Mawlawi has been in a federal prison in Mason, Tennessee, for the last 100 days and will remain there until his trial in August.

The picture shows Mawlawi in the snowy mountains of Bosnia in 1997, shouldering a rocket-propelled grenade launcher while another man kneels nearby to load an AK-47 automatic rifle. The other man, say federal authorities, is Enaam Arnaout, head of the Benevolence International Foundation. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the foundation was identified as a terrorist front for al-Qaeda. In 2002, Arnaout was indicted in Chicago on federal charges of funding terrorists, and he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge a year later. He has admitted to having a close personal relationship with Osama bin Laden.

Last Friday, assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Godwin connected the dots from Memphis to Bosnia and from Mawlawi to Arnaout, bin Laden, and al-Qaeda. In a hearing to decide whether Mawlawi should be released from prison for medical reasons (the request was denied by U.S. Magistrate Tu Pham), Godwin said Mawlawi "is a danger to the community and his association with certain people in Bosnia goes to that issue."

The previously unreported Memphis link to Arnaout and bin Laden - outlined by Godwin in a nearly empty courtroom before Pham and four spectators - is either the shocker of the year or a case of guilt by association that shows the government's willingness to sacrifice the civil liberties of Muslims in the name of anti-terrorism.

Rafat Jamal Mawlawi, 55, is a dual citizen of Syria and the United States. He came to the attention of federal authorities in Memphis during an investigation of a marriage scam originating in the Shelby County Penal Farm, where Mawlawi led Muslim prayers for inmates. In April he was indicted, along with four Middle Eastern men and six Memphians, for recruiting and paying U.S. citizens to enter into sham marriage engagements and produce bogus applications for fiancé visas to allow foreigners to illegally enter the country. The scheme unravelled when a prisoner squealed on Mawlawi. But the same prisoner also informed Mawlawi of the investigation against him. Mawlawi was in the process of selling his house and getting ready to move to Damascus when he was arrested.

Among the Memphians indicted was Chandra Netters Lofton Taylor, daughter of the Rev. James Netters, who is a former Memphis City Council member and former president of Memphis Light Gas and Water. Also indicted were three other members of the Netters family and Martha Jane Diana, a former employee of the Shelby County Assessor's office. The women allegedly were paid thousands of dollars and travel expenses to the Middle East by Mawlawi. Rev. Netters' former daughter-in-law Janet Netters Austin, who is a professional singer, married Mhammed Kabouchi, a citizen of Morocco, on January 14, 2004, the indictment states. She has pleaded not guilty, and federal prosecutors have said she is cooperating with them.

Mawlawi is the only one of the defendants who was not released on bond, although prosecutors tried unsuccessfully to detain codefendant Karim Ramzi, a Moroccan who is awaiting trial. Mawlawi's trial date is August 1st. He has had two detention hearings where Godwin and FBI agents introduced the Bosnia picture and other evidence and described his criminal background, which is somewhat confusing. Mawlawi was charged with felony fraud in California in 1993, convicted in 1994, and got five years probation. He missed an extradition hearing in 1993, left the country, and was arrested when he reentered the U.S. at JFK International Airport in New York.

Mawlawi's attorney, Lorna McClusky, called Godwin's recitation of terrorist ties "an ugly implication with nothing to back it up." Mawlawi was born in Syria and moved to the U.S. after college and became a naturalized citizen. He served 12 years in the Navy and was honorably discharged. He was married and divorced while living in California, then remarried. His wife, who wears a head scarf, attends his court appearances, along with Nabil Mawlawi, the defendant's brother, and his mother, who came to Memphis from Syria following his arrest.

Nabil Mawlawi, who owns a gyro restaurant in Bartlett, scoffed at the government's terrorism implications. He said Rafat went to Bosnia to visit another brother who was dying and stayed to teach English. Rafat was in Syria for a month earlier this year and would not have returned if he had anything to fear or hide, his brother said.

"If he is a terrorism supporter then so am I because I am his brother," he said.

Rafat Mawlawi is not charged with terrorism. The government, however, can present evidence it believes shows that someone under arrest is a danger to the community or a flight risk, and the publicity can be tantamount to a criminal charge. Since 9/11, the government has used immigration charges as an anti-terrorism tool and a way to pressure people to provide information about Muslim groups. A story by The Washington Post in June reported that more than 200 immigration agents now work with Joint Terrorism Task Forces on counter-terrorism and that more than 500 people have been charged since 2003.

The criminal charges against Mawlawi are more serious than routine immigration cases which are handled in another division of federal court. The weapons charge, which was filed two weeks after the charges related to the marriage scam, appears to be a lay down for the government.

In March agents did a "trash pull" of containers outside Mawlawi's house at 5320 Craigmont. They found e-mails indicating Mawlawi wanted to move his wife and children to Damascus. A week later, agents noticed the house was for sale and a rummage sale was in process. On April 4th, nine agents searched the house and questioned Mawlawi and his wife. After first saying they were moving to Arizona, Mawlawi admitted they were leaving the country. Asked if he had any firearms, Mawlawi said he had a shotgun. In addition to that, however, agents found three guns and a loaded ammunition magazine in a safe, along with $30,000 in cash. They also seized the photograph of Mawlawi shouldering the grenade launcher that was introduced at his detention hearing in April.

It wasn't until last week - three months after the weapons indictment - that prosecutors for the first time linked Mawlawi to Enaam Arnaout, who was involved in one of the most highly publicized and controversial terrorism prosecutions since 9/11. Arnaout was indicted in October 2002 and charged with sending money to al-Qaeda through the Illinois-based Benevolence International Foundation. The prosecutor was Patrick Fitzgerald, in the news these days as the special prosecutor investigating the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name to reporters. Fitzgerald successfully prosecuted Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and also won convictions in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

But in the Arnaout case, the verdict was mixed. He pleaded guilty to a single count of racketeering after six other charges were dropped. At his sentencing in 2003, the judge said prosecutors "failed to connect the dots" to show that Arnaout "identified with or supported" terrorism.

Godwin, a veteran prosecutor who won a conviction against football booster Logan Young Jr. earlier this year, appears to be following the Fitzgerald play book. Under Godwin's questioning, FBI agent Robert Parker testified last week that Arnaout recruited Mawlawi to come to Bosnia in 1997 and work for the Benevolence International Foundation. Parker said a search of the organization's office in Bosnia turned up a picture of Arnaout and Osama bin Laden, and that Arnaout has admitted to the FBI "that he did in fact have a relationship with bin Laden and for a time lived in his house in Pakistan."

McClusky, Mawlawi's attorney, said that "doesn't come close to showing that this man is a threat." Mawlawi himself, wearing the standard light-brown prison suit and handcuffs, took the stand for almost an hour, mainly to talk about his medical problems which were the issue at the hearing. He is a stocky man with short gray hair and a beard who spoke easily about medical terminology and prescription drugs. There were occasional moments of testiness when Godwin cross-examined him, but on the whole Mawlawi seemed healthy and in control.

That was not the case a week earlier, when the medical hearing was postponed after just a few minutes. After Magistrate Pham had pushed the hearing back a week and left the courtroom, Mawlawi angrily told his attorney that Godwin, who was standing across the room, "is the one who's fucking me over." Two marshalls quickly took him by the arms and led him out of the courtroom. n

Friday, July 15, 2005

Wave of the Future?

Charter schools expand theirbase in Memphis.

Posted By on Fri, Jul 15, 2005 at 4:00 AM

With the Memphis City Schools maintenance debacle over for the time being, the Memphis business community's other pet project for public education - charter schools - can now get the attention it deserves.

Changing a school system with 118,000 students and 191 facilities can be a bruising process, as the Trammell Crow Company and local minority vendor Memphis Chemical and Janitorial Supply found out the hard way. School board members objected to a deal struck by Superintendent Carol Johnson and operations manager Lavon Alston. Alston resigned last month, Trammell Crow decided to stick to other real estate, and Memphis Chemical and attorney Robert Spence are suing to recover more than $1 million in expenses. Maintenance and supervision of school clean-up will stay in-house for now.

Charter schools are a sexier story. With backing from Memphis Tomorrow and the Hyde Family Foundation, six charter schools opened in Memphis in 2003 and 2004, and four more are scheduled to open in August. If they all make it, Memphis will have 10 of the 14 charter schools in Tennessee. Another Memphis school, the KIPP alternative middle school founded in 2001, is a hybrid of charter school and MCS parentage.

Charter schools get state certification and funding. Unlike optional schools such as Grahamwood Elementary and John P. Freeman Elementary, which cherry-pick top students with high test scores, charter schools have to take students who are either failing or assigned to a failing school in their district. They hold classes in churches and other unconventional locations, scramble for principals and certified teachers looking for a fresh challenge, and recruit students with a promise of long hours and classroom innovations.

Blakley Wallace, principal of the new Promise Academy in Frayser, was drumming up customers last weekend at a picnic and outside a Kroger on Frayser Boulevard. School starts August 8th at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Frayser for 60 kindergarten students, with plans to add one grade a year until Pyramid is a full-fledged K-8 school.

"I give out my home phone number and cell number to people and tell them to call me about the academy," said Wallace, who taught music for eight years in Arkansas and was assistant principal at Ridgeway Middle School in Memphis for four years. "I tell them they're not going to get an education like this anywhere else for free."

Promise Academy's "life and culture curriculum" will teach etiquette and "appropriate" language for different settings and situations.

"We are not going to replace casual language but add to it," Wallace said.

Students will also get two or three hours of language arts and an hour of math each day, plus music and art three days a week. The school day will last from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., including a nap and prepackaged lunch.

Charter schools often have a longer school day - not to mention a longer name - than traditional schools. The new Southern Avenue Charter School of Academic Excellence and Creative Arts for 80 kindergarten and first-grade students will require parents to leave their children in school until 4 p.m. so they can do homework. Principal Elise Evans, who has 37 years experience as a teacher, counselor, and preschool director, says the curriculum will include Spanish, ballet, chess, music by the Suzuki method, and literacy.

The two other new charter schools are the Stax Music Academy for sixth-graders and the Memphis Business Academy, also for sixth-graders. The Stax charter school is an extension of an existing and well-publicized program tied to the famous record label and museum. The Business Academy, which will be located downtown, will start with 68 students.

Charter schools operate under a microscope. Backers say they free children trapped in failing schools run by an evil bureaucracy, while critics fear they siphon funds and moral support from the traditional schools scorned by conservative ideologues. The Memphis KIPP school made news this week for costing $1 million a year more than school board members were led to believe it would cost when they approved it. Another charter school sponsor, the Yo! Memphis Foundation, has been called on the carpet by the Memphis City Council for sloppy spending and accounting in its youth programs.

Facilities could be the next hot issue, as the strongest charter schools outgrow their temporary quarters. A logical home would seem to be public schools closed for low enrollment. MCS spokesman Vince McCaskill said this week it's unclear what will become of five elementary schools closed this year, but at this point there are no plans to use them for charter schools. n

CITY BEAT by JOHN BRANSTON

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

CITY BEAT

Charter schools, a top priority of Memphis Tomorrow, expand their base in Memphis.

Posted By on Tue, Jul 12, 2005 at 4:00 AM

WAVE OF THE FUTURE With the Memphis City Schools maintenence debacle over for the time being, the Memphis business community’s other pet project for public education — charter schools — can now get the attention it deserves.

Changing a school system with 118,000 students and 191 facilities can be a bruising process, as the Trammell Crow Company and local minority vendor Memphis Chemical and Janitorial Supply found out the hard way. School board members objected to a deal struck by superintendent Carol Johnson and operations manager Lavon Alston. Alston resigned last month, Trammell Crow decided to stick to other real estate, and Memphis Chemical and attorney Robert Spence are suing to recover more than $1 million in expenses. Maintenance and supervision of school clean-up will stay in house for now..

Charter schools are a sexier story. With backing from Memphis Tomorrow, the Hyde Family Foundation, six charter schools opened in Memphis in 2003 and 2004, and four more are scheduled to open in August. If they all make it, Memphis will have 10 of the 14 charter schools in Tennessee. Another Memphis school, the KIPP alternative middle school founded in 2001, is a hybrid of charter school and MCS parentage.

Charter schools get state certification and funding. Unlike optional schools such as Grahamwood Elementary and John P. Freeman Elementary which cherry-pick top students with high test scores, charter schools have to take students who are either failing or assigned to a failing school in their district. They hold classes in churches and other unconventional locations, scramble for principals and certified teachers looking for a fresh challenge, and recruit students with a promise of long hours and classroom innovations.

Blakley Wallace, principal of the new Promise Academy in Frayser, was drumming up customers last weekend at a picnic and outside a Kroger on Frayser Boulevard. School starts August 8th at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Frayser for 60 kindergarten students, with plans to add one grade a year until Pyramid is a full-fledged K-8th-grade school.

“I give out my home phone number and cell number to people and tell them to call me about the academy,” said Wallace, who taught music for eight years in Arkansas and was assistant principal at Ridgeway Middle School in Memphis for four years. “I tell them they’re not going to get an education like this anywhere else for free.”

Promise Academy’s “life and culture curriculum” will teach etiquette, manners, and “appropriate” language for different settings and situations.

“We are not going to replace casual language but add to it,” Wallace said.

Students will also get two or three hours of language arts and an hour of math each day, plus music and art three days a week. The school day will last from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., including a nap and prepackaged lunch from MCS.

Charter schools often have a longer school day — not to mention a longer name — than traditional schools. The new Southern Avenue Charter School of Academic Excellence and Creative Arts for 80 kindergarten and first-grade students will require parents to leave their children in school for an extra hour until 4 p.m. so they can do homework. Principal Elise Evans, who has 37 years experience as a teacher, counselor, and preschool director, says the curriculum will include Spanish, ballet, chess, music by the Suzuki method, and literacy.

The two other new charter schools are the Stax Music Academy for sixth-graders and the Memphis Business Academy, also for sixth-graders. The Stax charter school is an extension of an existing and well-publicized program tied to the famous record label and museum, but the Business Academy, which will be located in Frayser, is a new venture.

Charter schools operate under a microscope. Backers say they free children trapped in failing schools run by an evil bureaucracy, while critics fear they siphon funds and moral support from the traditional schools scorned by conservative ideologues. The Memphis KIPP school made news this week for costing $1 million a year more than school board members were led to believe it would cost when they approved it. Another charter school sponsor, the Yo! Memphis Foundation, has been called on the carpet by the Memphis City Council for sloppy spending and accounting in its youth programs.

Facilities could be the next hot issue, as the strongest charter schools outgrow their temporary quarters in churches. A logical home would seem to be public schools closed for low enrollment.

Memphis City Schools spokesman Vince McCaskill said this week it’s unclear what will become of five elementary schools closed this year but at this point there are no plans to use them for charter schools.

Friday, July 1, 2005

Crystal Ball

Five predictions for Memphis, based on recent headlines.

Posted By on Fri, Jul 1, 2005 at 4:00 AM

John Ford will beat the rap by wrapping himself in TennCare. The more the media, state investigators, plaintiff's attorneys, and rival politicians bore in on him, the greater Ford's chances of being acquitted on federal criminal charges of extortion. The investigations will blur in the public mind and look like piling on.

There is no connection between E-Cycle Management — the bogus company in the F.B.I. Tennessee Waltz sting — and United American HealthCare (UAHC) — the parent of TennCare provider UAHC Health Plan of Tennessee. But Ford has already said he was singled out for indictment by TennCare cutters. If there are criminal indictments stemming from an investigation by the TennCare inspector general's office, which was created by the General Assembly in 2004, or Tennessee Insurance Commissioner Paula Flowers, who put UAHC of Tennessee on administrative supervision in April, Ford will cry dirty politics. And his cry will resonate in Memphis, which has more TennCare recipients who stand to lose their coverage than any other part of the state.

Ford didn't invent the concept of the high-paid consultant, he just refined it as a legislator. This week the Government Accountability Office reported that 34 states used consultants paid on contingency fees to get more Medicaid and Medicare money.

If Ford is tried by a Memphis jury, he will walk.

 The U.S. Supreme Court's decision on eminent domain in Kelo v. New London will not help the Riverfront Development Corporation in its efforts to develop the downtown Promenade. In fact, it will hurt it by focusing attention on the land bridge, which is the most expensive and controversial part of the RDC plan.

You can read the entire opinion in less than 10 minutes at this Web site: straylight.law.cornell.edu. It is nuanced, balanced, and bears little resemblance to the simplifications and mischaracterizations of it in media accounts. The New London Development Corporation is somewhat similar to the RDC. A small group of private-property owners whose properties were not blighted fought the development plan and lost. The case turned on whether the plan served "public purpose," which is not the same as "public use." See for yourself how economic development serves public purpose.

The RDC wants to take some public land for private use to help finance public improvements. The only way to get the land bridge through is by stealth. When the focus, for whatever reason, shifts to the cost, whether it is $100 million or $250 million, it's a dead duck. Boss Crump recommended a land bridge to Mud Island in a newspaper interview in 1953, the year before he died. The most powerful man in Memphis history couldn't make it happen, and neither will the RDC.

 The Memphis Grizzlies will wear out their welcome if they don't boost their contributions to the city in a big way. There is no causal connection, but the fact is that public parks and boulevards and golf courses are suffering while the $250 million FedExForum sits idle, the NBA finals get lousy ratings, Grizzlies malcontents making $8 million a year whine and can't get fired up to win a playoff game, and publicists try to get us to care about the 19th pick in this week's draft. Pitiful. How ironic that "surplus" funds from the MLGW water division are helping to pay off the bonds for FedExForum while the city can't water the greens at the Links of Galloway golf course.

 The Pyramid reuse recommendation — an indoor theme park and a shopping mall — won't happen. It's not that the ideas are bad. It's that they require public subsidies, giving away the building, or both. And this is not the time to be spending public money to promote tourism or economic impact. With the arena, baseball stadium, trolley, Mud Island, and The Pyramid in place and the highest property taxes in the state, the era of big public projects in Memphis is over.

 Which brings us to this: The next mayor of Memphis will run and win on a program of a better Memphis for Memphians through revitalized neighborhood parks and public spaces. His or her model will be Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, who has been singing this song for years.

"As schools lost their effectiveness as community anchors, the same thing happened to parks, libraries, and other public spaces," Daley has said. "People stopped using them and the city stopped taking care of them. Or maybe people stopped using them because the city stopped taking care of them. ... The nice thing is, if you improve the quality of life for people in your city, you will end up attracting new people and employers."

Nothing gets the public stirred up like uncut grass or unpicked-up garbage. 

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