Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Intermodal Madness

The FedExForum parking garage is the latest in a long line of transit boondoggles.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 21, 2006 at 4:00 AM

See if you can follow this.

Central Station downtown used to be a busy train station back when lots of people rode trains. But it's not about trains any more. Now it's an apartment building with a small Amtrak office, and the waiting room is often used for parties and wedding receptions. Since a few months ago, Central Station has also been the South Main Station of the Memphis Police Department, with 200 officers and scores of police cars in the parking lot that was ostensibly built for Amtrak passengers. The upper level of the parking lot is one of the weirdest things downtown -- an outdoor waiting area under a metal roof the length of a football field. The benches are empty, usually. The parking lot is empty, usually (except on Saturdays, when there is a farmers market). But every few minutes a MATA bus headed south on Front Street makes a left turn into the parking lot, takes a lonely and utterly pointless lap around the outdoor waiting area the length of a football field, exits the parking lot, turns back north, and goes on its way.

Welcome to the intermodal transit facility, envisioned 15-20 years ago by delusional federal officials as a hub where buses, cars, trains, and taxi cabs would load and unload passengers for God knows what reason and bring prosperity to downtown Memphis. Which it did, sort of, although not at all in the way it was supposed to. In fact, Central Station is a party room, apartment building, police station, art gallery, and parking lot where Amtrak's City of New Orleans makes its daily departure headed south at 6:50 a.m. Between the train station boondoggle and the river, the South Bluff and South End neighborhoods have brought more than 1,000 new residents downtown. They don't ride buses or trains, but they're there. Would they be there if the train station was still the spooky wreck it was 20 years ago? Maybe, maybe not.

Most of this was paid for with federal funds available for mass transportation, the same funding that was used for the parking garage at FedExForum that is suddenly in the news. Or, rather, suddenly in the news in a big way because it was in the news a little bit four years ago when Shelby County commissioners John Willingham and Walter Bailey were squawking and demanding an audit that never happened.

Federal funds for mass transit were also used 20 years ago to landscape and repave the crumbling bricks of the downtown Main Street Mall, formerly the Mid-America Mall, and to put in trolleys that were supposed to carry working passengers but actually carry tourists and people going to special events. Again, the result was more positive than negative, although not in the way that was intended.

About $70 million in federal transportation funds were also used for the east-west trolley extension along Madison Avenue to Cleveland. It is hardly used at all, but if the medical research park at the old Baptist Hospital site comes to pass, part of it could serve a useful purpose some day.

Federal transportation funds paid for the Bluff Walk downtown, thanks to a wrinkle in the law that requires some expenditures for pedestrian and bicycle transit. The benefits have been more toward beautification than bikes.

And federal transportation funds paid for the bus terminal at the north end of downtown. This project actually functions as a bus terminal, with real passengers sitting in a real waiting room to ride real buses to get to real places.

So, let's review. We have Central Station for parties, faux farmers, and apartments; the parking garage at the FedExForum for the Memphis Grizzlies; the downtown trolley for tourists; the east-west trolley for bus drivers and, possibly, future medical researchers; the Bluff Walk for pedestrians; and the bus terminal at the north end of downtown for people who ride the bus. Six federally funded mass-transit projects, one of which actually provides and promotes regular mass transit. One for six, or about the same probability as Shaq hitting a free throw in the NBA playoffs. Your tax dollars at work.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Dialogue in Black and White

A "secret" (and imaginary) conversation after the Roscoe Dixon trial.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 14, 2006 at 4:00 AM

"Beautiful day in Memphis, isn't it?"

"Man, it's so humid I feel like I been skin divin' for the Sultana."

"Not the weather. The Roscoe Dixon trial. Justice prevailed. The feds are cleaning up the town. Surely you heard all about it?"

"Another brother goin' to jail, you wanna throw a parade. Treatin' Roscoe like he's public enemy number one. There's cracker supervisors all over Tennessee and Mississippi with more than $9,500 in county bulldozer blades in their garage."

"Dixon himself said he's going to take some time to see where he went wrong."

"Yeah, like four to six years. Roscoe's all over the map on tapes, on the stand, in front of the damn microphones. Man don't know where he stands at 56 has got a problem."

"Not if he flips on John Ford."

"That'd really make your day, wouldn't it? Who do you think keeps brothers like John and Roscoe in business? Only time you white boys come calling is when you need something. And then we're supposed to be the ones with our hands out."

"Whites and blacks working together can change this city."

"Ain't four white boys in the Memphis FBI could find Roscoe's people or the Hamilton Community Development Center with a GPS. The gap between haves and have-nots in this town is wider than the friggin' Grand Canyon."

"Must you use that sort of language?"

"Put an FBI bug on your ass at the country club for 24 hours, see how you sound."

"What about Roscoe's good friend A C Wharton. He's been awfully quiet since the trial."

"Habits die hard. The man was a defense lawyer for 30 years. And unlike you, he doesn't pile on, especially with friends. Plenty of time to say somethin' later on."

"He better. It's an election year and he hired Roscoe last year as assistant CAO. What happened to the 'skeletons in the closet' question?"

"Friendship? Don't ask, don't tell? Careless? I don't know. But brothers didn't invent it. Anyway, when Roscoe signed on at the county, he was working under a former fed, John Fowlkes, the CAO."

"Surely you aren't suggesting they got a heads up on the Tennessee Waltz?"

"Who knows? Fowlkes ain't a fool. Maybe he had his suspicions but let Roscoe count paper clips for a few months while he collected paychecks. Maybe he even let Tim Willis, the human tape recorder, come by and see if he could help his new friends at the FBI fill out their dance card."

"I still say it was a bad hire."

"That's cuz you're a white boy. Like Roscoe said, everybody got some semi-hustle. Your granddaddy had enough sense to buy his insurance from Boss Crump. These phony E-Cycle dudes weren't playing with public money. It was chips in a casino. You're such a Boy Scout you never threw a dealer a chip at the table? Well, Roscoe was dealin'."

"Dealing in illegality."

"Put another zero or two on that $9,500 and they'd call it investment banking and make him a vice president."

"I prefer to call it public service. At least the fear factor will keep our public officials honest from now on."

"Just more careful. Long as you got guitars and lobbyists in Nashville, you got corruption."

"Perhaps we should pay our lawmakers a full-time salary."

"Like that college president at UT in Knoxville who got canned or the one over here at the medical school with the plasma TVs? The salary ain't ever enough."

"Then maybe we should enlist more rich businessmen like our governor, who has so much money he doesn't need a salary."

"Always with the white boys. Bredesen made his nut in health care and the stock market. Bet he'd a been on Roscoe's speed dial if he been here 15 years ago."

"Goodness, I hope I'm never as cynical as you are. I think I need to take a bath."

"I wish you would. And I hope I'm never as hypocritical as you are."

"So I guess that's it, we're stuck with each other."

"You got a better idea?"

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Wednesday, June 7, 2006

"Big Dog on the Porch"

The chilling truth is how much worse Roscoe Dixon's corruption could have gotten.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 7, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Superficially, Roscoe Dixon is the most sympathetic of the E-Cycle cast of characters, which may have been a factor in his decision to testify. In their undercover roles, E-Cycle bigwigs "L.C" was a jive-talking dot-com millionaire looking to make another score if E-Cycle became a public company and "Joe Carson" was a befuddled "whatever-it-takes" chief executive. What they knew about legislative process, the environment, or computer recycling you could write on the head of a pin.

On tape, Dixon protégé and bagman Barry Myers came across as a foul-mouthed hustler. Expletives are no longer deleted in trial transcripts, and jurors got a full week of Myers employing the F-word in all its variants, as in, "I want to make some f***in' money!" Cooperating witness Tim Willis learned or had the gift of being able to fake sincerity. So well, in fact, you wondered if he was acting or speaking from the heart when he played the part of the free-spending lobbyist who longed to "be a player."

The Dixon the jury saw on tape was an amalgam of political godfather, long-suffering (and in his mind underpaid) soldier with ambitions to become a general, and corrupt politico with a conscience. He didn't cuss, at least not much. He initially took E-Cycle seriously and made sincere inquiries for them through proper government channels. The financial favors he asked "for Barry" were piddling compared to the $30 million and $250,000 paydays in stock-market funny money envisioned by L.C., Carson, and Willis if Dixon came through. When he took money, he left some on the table, literally, and shared it with family and friends. He had his hand in the cookie jar, but Team E-Cycle was bidding for the jar, the major appliances, the whole kitchen. On the stand and under the gentle questioning of his attorney, he was good old Roscoe, son of Whitehaven, Army soldier, National Guardsman, married to the same woman 25 years.

But jurors also saw, again and again, a sinister side to Dixon that suggested where Myers learned the ropes. Dixon was "predicated" on the entirely real issue of dental care for Tennessee children, which he could influence as head of the TennCare oversight committee. The contortions he went through to distance himself from bribes -- Myers called him "scared of his [expletive] shadow" -- made him look conniving as well as guilty. He lied to himself and others, including FBI agents, in a taped interview two weeks before he was indicted.

If Dixon learned a few things about trial preparation and the potential benefits of testifying from Harold Ford Sr., the government has learned a few things too. Prosecutor Tim DiScenza was thorough and methodical. Instead of hitting the jury with details at the start of the trial, as prosecutors did in the Ford trial, he brought out his big guns -- Myers, Willis, Carson, and L.C. -- right away. Then he produced the phone records and bank records and closed all the legal loopholes. Finally, in case jurors had forgotten anything, he called an FBI agent to the witness stand to present a chronological summary of the case. (At Flyer press time, he was cross-examining Dixon.)

What was chilling about the tapes was how much worse it could have been if Willis and Myers had not turned and the government had not acted. Myers was planning to succeed Dixon in the state legislature and even said he had his mentor's office copy of the state seal. None of that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington idealism for Myers. His moral compass was his little black book of dirt on various "niggas" and "white boys." Dixon dreamed of being mayor of Memphis or, to come down a peg, General Sessions Court clerk, with an empire of appointed employees and credit cards. In 2005, he was hired as assistant chief administrative officer by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, described by Dixon as part of "the network" with him and Ford. As a "big dog on the porch," Dixon had influence over contracts and the dirt on his "big juice" pals, who also had the goods on him, ensuring that the corruption would continue.

Assuming that prosecutors won't rest until going after the supply side as well as the politicians, the Tennessee Waltz is a watershed in Memphis history. Before this week, I figured the government was hoping Dixon would plead guilty. After seeing and hearing the tapes, I believe the Justice Department wanted to try the case and air the dirty laundry in the court of public opinion. A guilty plea would have been open to spin and dissembling.

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