Hey Grizzlies, about that new owner and front person you're looking for. There's someone in Memphis this week who's got the money, plus world-class athletic ability, a great smile, and fan appeal that cuts across racial and age lines.
The only problem is her game is tennis, not basketball, and she'll be outta here Sunday, if not before. But Venus Williams has already earned her appearance money and then some by filling the Racquet Club on a Monday night and reminding the estimated 5,000 people what true stars are all about.
Racquet Club owner Mac Winker was the happiest man in Memphis when Williams closed out a close three-set win over journeyman player Akiko Morigami. Winker said he hadn't seen anything like it since Jimmy Connors played here 20 years ago. The man standing next to him agreed -- he was John Connors, Jimmy's older brother, a tennis teacher in Illinois here to take in the first few days of the tournament.
"The atmosphere was like a prizefight," said Winker.
During several long rallies in which Morigami ran down ball after ball, fans cheered before the point was over, a violation of tennis etiquette that drew a warning from the chair umpire. But the scolding was perfunctory -- imagine fans getting so wound up that they break out in cheers and gasps -- and the players didn't seem to mind. In the post-match press conference, Morigami said it was "cool" to play Williams for the first time, and Williams described the crowd response as "awesome."
Williams is coming off an injury and hadn't played for four months. As rangy as her sister Serena is muscular, she is all business on the court and doesn't play to the crowd with Connors-like fist pumps, tantrums, or jokes. Her famous father was in the courtside players' box but disappeared during the second set before returning for the finish. Williams said she only looks at her father's box in the last game.
She won the first set easily but faltered in the second set as her serve deserted her and Morigami smacked two-handed winners off her forehand and backhand. In first-round matches involving headliners, there is always a fine line between a thriller in which the star is tested and a disaster in which the star gets beat. The latter has happened many times over the 30 years of the tournament, and attendance can fall off the table without an Agassi, Sampras, McEnroe, or Roddick in the final rounds. To lose Williams would have been even worse, because she is by far the best player ever to enter the women's field in the relatively short history of that event.
With Williams serving at 5-4 in the third set, it still looked like that might happen again. On the first point, she caught her first service toss, then her second. Would her serve desert her again? No. She hit a 108-mph winner, then followed it up with three more first serves topping out at 114 mph to take the match.
Only then did she acknowledge the crowd and the shouts of "V" with a wave and a huge smile. She happily knocked four souvenir balls into the stands. Then she gathered her gear and walked a double rope-line of picture-taking fans, smiling and slapping palms all the way to the locker room. Fan interaction is the most underrated play in sports. Pete Sampras walked off this same court without so much as a wave after losing one year, and John McEnroe all but sunk the seniors tournament at the Racquet Club last year with his cursing and tantrums. Williams, for whatever reason, gave the crowd what it wanted: the illusion that she is both somehow like us and likes us.
"Hello," she said simply, as she sat down in the interview room promptly at 9 p.m., as advertised. Then she smiled and laughed her way through 15 minutes of questions, allowing that, no, her wrist didn't bother her, and, yes, she does feel like an advocate for the game in Memphis, where hundreds of people probably made their first visit to the Racquet Club. "I'm pretty much going for it the whole time," she said.
If only we could keep her.
It Came from Outer Space
A rare Rolex watch with pieces of a meteorite in it took center stage Tuesday in a hearing in federal court on former Senator John Ford's political corruption case.
Federal prosecutor Tim DiScenza told U.S. district judge Daniel Breen that Ford got the watch from Memphis developer Rusty Hyneman for helping him in a state environmental matter. The government wants to use the watch as evidence when Ford goes on trial in April. Breen was expected to rule Tuesday after the Flyer went to press.
FBI agent Mark Jackson took the stand to explain how the government learned about the watch. Jackson said that while the government's undercover company, E-Cycle Management, was paying Ford $5,000 a month in 2004, agents learned about the watch in secretly recorded conversations.
Tapes were played in the courtroom Tuesday on which Ford says, "I did him a favor," referring to Hyneman. Ford brags to the undercover FBI agent that the watch is worth $50,000 and "I paid zero." Ford says on tape that he "saved the fucker $1.3 million" and later on in the conversation he changes that to $1.5 million.
When Ford was arrested in May 2005, he was wearing the watch, and FBI agents seized it. Ford later asked to get the watch back and denied getting it for doing a favor for Hyneman. The FBI, however, kept the watch and recently determined that its true value is $46,800 and is, in fact, an extremely rare watch that, according to the maker, has pieces of meteorite in it.
Hyneman was outside the courtroom in the witness room under subpoena by the government but had not testified as of press time.
"If I had done it ..." he began.
We started to protest that we didn't want to get burned like that book publisher, but then we thought, what the heck, let's hear the guy out. This is what he said.
"Not saying I'm going to, but if I were doing this I'd pitch this thing as the biggest economic development grab-bag of my administration. A something-for-everyone deal -- contractors, architects, bankers, bond underwriters, football fans, the University of Memphis, Orange Mound, Christian Brothers University, even those Midtown naysayers with their bumper stickers.
"You got the national media all hot and bothered now about the housing slump and the ripple effect and all those no-interest and low-interest adjustable mortgages exploding into high-interest mortgages that people can't afford without going into bankruptcy. The chairman of the federal reserve bank even said this week we're facing a tidal wave of defaults and foreclosures. You know Memphis has gotta be on the most-likely-to-be-squeezed list of metro areas because of all that sprawl out east. So I'm not just Mayor Willie Herenton next week. I'm Dr. Willie Herenton, armchair economist and business rainmaker, ready to give old Memphis and my reelection campaign an economic booster shot in this election year.
"I'd put all kinds of things over at the Fairgrounds, like a Wal-Mart, a Target, a bunch of apartments, maybe some restaurants. Then I'd create one of those tax-increment financing zones like they did downtown, where the private development and the new taxes go into a pot to help fund the stadium, like they did at AutoZone Park and FedExForum. And I'd follow the example of Dean and Kristi Jernigan and spread the financing around by charging big prices for suites and club-level space and all that and putting the bite on the state and keeping the local funding to a minimum. And I'd get my corporate friends to put the bite on their CEOs and mucky-mucks to sign up like they did for the NFL drive and AutoZone Park and NBA Now."
At this point, we had to point out to O.J. that corporate stadium suites are so yesterday because of boredom and tax laws and oversupply and a feeling that you can get more face time with clients by taking them golfing or on a fishing trip. Lots of pro teams in baseball, basketball, and football are tearing out suites, according to a story in Saturday's Wall Street Journal.
"I never said Memphis was ahead of the curve or that UM should will ever be confused with USC," he continued. "In fact I'd rather be back in that courtroom on trial for murdering Nicole than trying to sell suites or even seats for that matter for games between Memphis and Tulsa while UT, 'Bama, Ole Miss, and LSU are on the 48-inch high-definition big screen in everyone's home entertainment center. But that's the University of Memphis' problem. They need to get into a BCS conference by hook or by crook. If I were R.C. Johnson, I'd make getting Memphis into the BCS this year's version of Memphis and the NFL or NBA.
"Besides, you're getting away from my point. Pitch this as an economic development deal for the heart of poor old run-down Memphis. The stadium is just the sizzle. Talk about recreation centers and ball fields and swimming pools and stuff for year-round use and maybe they'll forget a stadium is only used nine times a year and the Liberty Bowl ain't half bad. Get Coca-Cola's bottling plant out of the southeast corner of the fairgrounds, and clean up the blight around the property. This is where your heavy-hitters from the University of Memphis and First Horizon and Morgan Keegan have to stand shoulder to shoulder with the mayor and his people. Otherwise it won't have a chance."
Then he was gone, as suddenly as he came. Thus spake The Juice.
Stories about jobs and the economy are easy to skip, even when they run on the front page of the paper, as happened Tuesday in The Commercial Appeal. They're abstract, and the big numbers are hard to grasp -- "the state will generate an estimated 31,900 new jobs, a gain of about 1.2 percent compared with 2006's 1.3 percent gain."
I know the story is important, but it lost me. Jobs are personal. If you don't have one, you're probably job-obsessed. If you don't like the one you have, then you are probably looking for a better one, and the numbers don't begin to tell the story.
David Ciscel teaches a course at the University of Memphis called "Good Jobs and Bad Jobs in Memphis." He invited me to talk to his class this week. Several years ago, I interviewed him for a story I wrote about warehouse work, so I think that's why he called. Or maybe he knows something about the business of print journalism these days. Anyway, to get ready, I spent Sunday morning reading the "Help Wanted" ads in the paper.
I found jobs that pay $7 an hour, jobs that pay $100,000 a year, jobs that pay an unspecified amount, jobs in music, jobs with catchy come-ons, jobs with brutally honest descriptions, jobs that I could see myself doing, and jobs that I couldn't imagine doing.
"So you've always wanted to drive a tour bus," said one ad. "Here's your chance." Actually I haven't, and it sounds awfully stressful. But Coach USA of Memphis has several positions available with "good first-year earning potential."
Continuing the tourism theme, Graceland is looking for a "merchandise supervisor" to oversee gift shops and the people who work in them. The job requires "handling employee issues and resolving employee and guest complaints" as well as the ability to "work under pressure while maintaining confidentiality." It sounds challenging and interesting. Weekends and holidays required. The pay is not mentioned.
At the bottom of the tourism-and-entertainment pyramid are the jobs as housekeepers at the Tunica casinos. One job, which is temporary, requires working three different shifts including overnights and pays $7 an hour.
Card dealers at the casinos are also in demand. Applicants have to be accepted to dealer school for seven weeks of unpaid training, five days a week, four hours a day. The school is free, but the ad doesn't say how much dealers can expect to earn.
Honey-Baked Ham is looking for telemarketers. The pay is $8 to $10 an hour. I had no idea they use telemarketers, and although I get lots of telemarketing calls around dinnertime when I'm looking for something to eat, I have never gotten one from Honey-Baked Ham, which seems odd.
Telemarketing jobs are always available, and filling them must be a challenge given the number of cranky people like me on the other end of the line. A Verizon ad requires "a high degree of scheduling availability," which sound like nights and weekends, at $10 an hour. A clever ad for a "credit reporter" says it requires a college degree and involves "heavy phone work" but in a "fun business-casual atmosphere." It pays $10 to $11 an hour. Other call-center ads specify that only inbound calls are involved, which I take to mean complaints.
If telemarketing can be "fun," then it should not be surprising that an ad for a janitor at $9.50 an hour describes the position as "floor technician." Or that an ad for a receptionist/sales rep at Massage Envy emphasizes the "professional atmosphere."
The earnings potential of some jobs seems surprisingly high -- "lawn care, earn $40,000 to $50,000 or more" -- while the quoted salary for other jobs seems low -- "construction project manager" and coordinator of State Building Commission projects for the University of Memphis, at $28,244 to $40,290. And we wonder why the FedExForum parking garage ran into problems. An apartment complex is looking for a maintenance person able to do plumbing and electrical work and fix appliances for $15 an hour. What homeowner in need wouldn't happily pay three times that?
As America's Distribution Center, Memphis has lots of jobs involving trucks and warehouse work. There are four full columns of driver ads, with many promising "$50,000 annually" plus a signing bonus. FedEx Ground needs package handlers at $9.50 an hour, but there is the promise of raises and benefits after 90 days. For what it's worth, that's 50 cents more than the job paid when I did my little stint as a warehouse worker eight years ago. Another company needs a "truck washer" for $1,600 a month. And Exel Supply Chain Management needs a forklift driver at $9.75 an hour.
The prize for full disclosure goes to Sherwin-Williams, which needs "production operators" able to do "constant, repetitive lifting, turning and twisting of 50 pound loads," plus stair-climbing, frequent 75-pound loads, standing for long periods, and donning protective equipment. Pay is not mentioned, and the job is only for six months. Don't say you weren't warned.
Crime being what it is, security guards are in demand, but the job doesn't pay much. Christian Brothers University is looking for them at $9 an hour, Murray Guard Inc. pays $7 to $9 an hour, and Imperial Security is looking for 50 guards at $500 to $700 a week plus overtime and 10 patrol drivers at $35,00 to $40,000 a year. For security of a different kind, the University of Memphis is seeking residence-hall coordinators, starting at $25,543 plus an apartment with utilities.
There are jobs out there for barbers and for bass guitarists who can play gospel music on Sundays. Pay not disclosed. Christian Brothers High School needs a chemistry teacher, preferably with a master's degree, for an unspecified salary. Waffle House is looking for managers at $30,000 to $35,000 a year.
There are nearly two full pages of job listings in the medical field. There is an ad for a nurse practitioner that pays $100,000. Registered nurses can make over $50,000. With typical naivete, I sang the praises of a nursing career to my wife, who used to be a nurse. She reminded me that the hours can be brutal, along with other factors.
"Human excrement," she said. "Lots of it."
City government does big things like collect taxes, set budgets, and provide police protection. But often it's the little things that impact peoples' lives and shape their views. Things like graduation ceremonies at the Mid-South Coliseum.
In the space of about six weeks, city officials managed to create a crisis disrupting the plans of thousands of Memphis families and then resolve it. The story offers a glimpse of how members of the city administration, the school board, and the City Council operate -- sometimes working together and sometimes painfully ignorant.
Around January 27th, the news broke that city and county schools would not be able to use the Coliseum for graduations as they have in the past because the building was not in compliance with code requirements for disabled citizens. Some schools made plans to shift graduation to the DeSoto Civic Center. But that idea enraged Memphians who pay taxes to support the Coliseum, the Pyramid, and FedExForum.
One of them was Wanda Halbert, a member of the Memphis City School Board of Education and mother of a child graduating this year from White Station High School, one of the affected schools. Halbert, who said she does not read the daily paper, said she learned the news a few days after it broke. In a committee meeting, Superintendent Carol Johnson said there were code-compliance issues that would cost $100,000 to fix. She suggested that parents who had already ordered graduation announcements insert a slip of paper informing recipients of the change of venue. But Halbert, one of three board members with graduating children (the others are Jeff Warren and Kenneth Whalum Jr.), was not satisfied. She even wondered about financially compensating families for the cost of reordering announcements and invitations.
"It was not a petty issue," said Halbert, who recalled the chaotic scene five years ago when Ridgeway High School decided to hold graduation in its gym and had to turn away several guests due to lack of space. "It was the worst thing in the world," she said.
The Coliseum has problems of its own in addition to code compliance. With more than enough seats for all comers, recent graduations have been marked by rowdiness, despite efforts of principals and teachers to encourage decorum. And at last May's ceremony for University of Tennessee health-sciences grads, the power went off, and those attending had to cope with oppressive heat and darkness. Drew Ermenc, whose wife was one of the graduates, said it was "a mess all around" and especially so for elderly people.
Halbert contacted Memphis City Council member Myron Lowery, who had already heard the news and was surprised by it. On December 19th, council members had been promised by Parks Division director Cindy Buchanan and chief financial officer Robert Lipscomb that the Coliseum would be available for graduations even though it is slated to be closed later this year. For Lowery, it was an all-too-familiar problem.
"Too often as council members we read about decisions within our scope that are changed by the administration without informing us," he told the Flyer this week.
Lowery asked Halbert to send him an e-mail, which he forwarded to City Council chairman Tom Marshall, along with his own e-mail, which said in part, "This is not only a serious creditability [sic] issue for the city, it was [sic] create a hardship for thousands of our citizens." He suggested the council discuss it on February 6th.
Lowery called Buchanan for an explanation. Although she is a veteran city administrator, Buchanan has been head of the Parks Division for only about a year. The division includes a hodgepodge of golf courses, community centers, and tennis courts as well as the Fairgrounds complex, which includes the Coliseum. Mayor Willie Herenton is scheduled to report to the council in two weeks on his overall plan for the Fairgrounds. In January, he surprised Memphians by recommending that the Coliseum be demolished so that a new football stadium can be built.
Lowery says Buchanan told him it would cost too much money to open the Coliseum. He reminded her that she had earlier promised that the Coliseum would be available. Buchanan disagreed but later called back to apologize to Lowery after he produced a transcript of the December meeting. In it, Buchanan says "minimal maintenance" will enable the Coliseum to be used for "small community events like the high school graduations." Councilman Jack Sammons asks, "So you could still do the graduations?" She replies, "Right."
On Tuesday, February 6th, the day the council was scheduled to meet, Lowery read in the morning paper that the graduations were on once again. The subject came up at a committee meeting that day. Keith McGee, chief administrative officer for the city, came to the meeting and assured members that the Coliseum would indeed be available for graduations this year only.
"Other than these graduations, the Coliseum is closed," he said.
McGee said the U.S. Department of Justice has signed a consent decree with the city of Memphis about compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, commonly known as ADA compliance. The Justice Department has agreed to allow graduations.
Council members were not satisfied. They wanted to know why they were not informed and how schools were informed that they would have to find alternate sites. McGee said Buchanan (who was not at the meeting and who could not be reached for comment because she is out of town) informed school officials by telephone, setting in motion the whole chain of events.
"This council needs to be kept informed on the front end," Lowery told McGee.
So the graduations at the Coliseum are once again on. Bring your friends, canes, fans, sweaters, flashlights, and earplugs. And congratulations.
The point, if you can call it that, was that you couldnt answer this tricky question without falling for the "joke" and incriminating yourself, ha ha.
This is not a column about gays or jokesters. It is about liars and trick questions, and specifically about people who are criminally charged with lying. There seems to be a lot of that going around lately. On the national scene, Scooter Libby, the former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, is on trial for lying, among other things, and some famous journalists have taken the stand to refute him. A few years ago, Martha Stewart, you may remember, got sent to prison for lying about her stock trades.
On the local scene, former state senator Roscoe Dixon was convicted last year of bribery, but he compounded his problems and lengthened his sentence by several months by lying to FBI agents in an 11th-hour interview two weeks before he was indicted. The agents knew he was lying because, unknown to Dixon, they had him on tape. Gotcha.
Memphis Police Officer Orlando Hebron was indicted last month for lying to FBI agents about a drug deal and theft at a Budget Mini-Storage. The agents had Hebron and an undercover informant on tape. But Hebron didnt know it. So a few days before the trap was about to close, he compounded his problems by lying about something the FBI knew perfectly well was true. So prosecutors tacked on another count of making false statements to U.S. investigators in their indictment. Gotcha.
Former Memphis Board of Education member Michael Hooks Jr. is also charged in a federal indictment with lying. In documents filed this week, attorneys for Hooks and the government argue about whether the lying count in the indictment should be dropped. The offense that Hooks is charged with participating in a scheme with Tim Willis and Darrell Catron to fraudulently get payments from Shelby County Juvenile Court happened nearly six years ago. The feds found out about it after Willis and Catron began cooperating with them in 2003. That led to Operation Tennessee Waltz. Of course Hooks didnt know they were cooperating until it was too late. Gotcha.
Former U.S. attorney Hickman Ewing Jr., who is now retired, says there's a lot of law about lying. In a nutshell, courts have decided there is something called an exculpatory no that is not perjury. In other words, defendants can assert their innocence in broad terms but they cannot, say, lie to a grand jury about specific events.
I'm not sure how I feel about all this. From reading the transcript of the tape, it seems like FBI agents were giving Roscoe Dixon a chance to confess. He didn't take it, he went to trial, and he got convicted. He got hammered by both the jury and the sentencing judge for lying. On the one hand, Dixon was guilty. On the other hand, if you're a defendant in a criminal case and you've pleaded innocent, aren't you in the in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound position? And could the government not indict people in wholesale lots for lying when they have problems with the more serious issue in the underlying criminal offense?
The Michael Hooks Jr. case will be interesting if it goes to trial. He is represented by Glen Reid, a former federal prosecutor in Memphis 30 years ago. Ewing says he was a very good one, too. In his motion, Reid argues that the alleged Hooks "lie" was immaterial to the underlying offense. According to the indictment, Hooks got an unspecified amount, possibly as little at $1,500, for his participation. It seems his more serious crime was refusing to cooperate with the government, as Willis and Catron did. I would like to hear from readers, especially lawyers, on this. You can post a comment or e-mail me at email@example.com.
And the answer to the question is no.
Who needs tedious lectures about ethics and hair-splitting discussions about whether or not it is okay to take a trip, a shrimp appetizer, a $50 meal, a $7 drink, or a $20,000 job from someone who might want your influence? Experience is the best teacher. Here is a summary of strategies employed so far by Memphis and Shelby County elected and appointed officials to deal with the ticklish issue of conflicts of interest.
Hope-You-Don't-Get-Caught Strategy. For those with the gift of deception, the beauty of this strategy is simplicity. Former Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks took bribes for years and got away with it until he was finally caught on tape in Tennessee Waltz. Once he was busted, Hooks offered no excuse, threw himself on the mercy of the court, and got a 26-month prison sentence.
Code-and-Bathroom Strategy. Crude and ineffective, especially if one is being secretly taped. City councilman Rickey Peete called payments "movies" and wrote short notes to lobbyist Joe Cooper to negotiate the amounts to leave in the bathroom. Cooper was secretly working with the FBI. Result: Peete was indicted and is awaiting trial.
Teach-and-Recuse Strategy. City Council chairman Tom Marshall is going to hold sessions on ethics for council members, assuming they can keep a straight face. Marshall, an architect, has a multimillion-dollar contract with the Memphis City Schools. City councilman Dedrick Brittenum, a lawyer, also does business with MCS. Their considerable expertise was all for naught when they recused themselves on annexation votes last year, turning an important issue into a non-issue for lack of leadership. They disenfranchised their constituents and abandoned their colleagues.
Immunization Strategy. When former Shelby County commissioner Bruce Thompson had a potential conflict of interest, he sought a shot of advice from Doctor ... whoops, make that county attorney Brian Kuhn. Thompson was helping a Jackson, Tennessee, building contractor get some Memphis school business. Should he or shouldn't he? Kuhn gave him a clean bill of health but now says he didn't have all the facts. Thompson subsequently decided not to run for reelection. Which brings us to our next strategy ...
Retirement Strategy. Tre Hargett of Bartlett was a rising star in the Tennessee General Assembly and House minority leader for the Republicans. Then his name came up in secret tapes in Operation Tennessee Waltz. An undercover FBI agent posing as an E-Cycle Management executive said, "We did something for Tre," and a crooked school board member from Chattanooga said Hargett "has got a sweetheart deal with Shelby County." Hargett works for Rural Metro, a company that provides ambulance service to more than 80 Tennessee municipalities. Hargett said he did nothing wrong. Like Thompson, he suddenly decided to get out of politics. Now Germantown and other suburbs want out of Rural Metro's deal with Shelby County.
Public-Relations Strategy. Shelby County commissioner Deidre Malone has her own public-relations company. One of her clients was the Jackson contractor who got the Memphis schools contract, thanks in part to her efforts. She did event planning and public relations for $5,000 a month for four months. She too made a visit to Dr. Kuhn for a pre-employment check-up and immunization. Result: a personal PR crisis.
Consulting Strategy. Former state senator John Ford patented this lucrative strategy, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars from health-care companies that did business with the state of Tennessee's TennCare program. His success inspired a flock of less-accomplished disciples, including former senator Roscoe Dixon. The Consulting Strategy has fallen out of favor since Ford was indicted and Dixon was convicted.
TCB Strategy. Former Shelby County Commission chief administrator Calvin Williams said he was just taking care of business when he set up shop at the 100 North Main Building with partner Tim Willis. Commissioners and jurors disagreed.
Wink-Wink Strategy. Full-time public employees aren't supposed to use their positions for political purposes. Democratic Party activist Gale Jones Carson went from executive assistant to Mayor Willie Herenton to corporate spokesman for Memphis Light, Gas & Water for $126,000 a year. Media attention has focused on her pension, but the challenge for Carson will be staying out of politics while she's on the job at MLGW during a city election year. In the age of cell phones and e-mails, that's impossible.