The notion flogged by The Commercial Appeal that Memphis is the most corrupt urban city in America is sophomoric, self-serving, and unsupported by facts.
Ranking cities on sketchy and subjective data is a product of our Internet age, when everything from American Idol contestants to colleges gets a ranking. If the topic is corruption, then the bigger the stink the bigger the hero who rides into town and cleans it up. Gee, thanks, Superman.
The CA asked an interesting question and published a good series this week, but the conclusion is as phony as the designations of cleanest city and quietest city in Boss Crumps day.
The indictment is based mainly on the Tennessee Waltz, Main Street Sweeper, and Tarnished Blue investigations, with a few miscellaneous crimes thrown in for good measure. Mercifully, the CA did not include its overblown Logan Young/Lynn Lang effort in the mix.
Lets look at the scorecard in the Big Three investigations:
Tarnished Blue has not resulted in the indictment of any police director. There have been six of them in the 16 years of the Herenton administration. One of them told me the top brass was aware of the corruption in the property room and was prepared to bust it but was told to let it play out by the FBI and crime consultants, which made the final haul bigger in both dollars and indictments.
Tennessee Waltz has indicted John Ford, Roscoe Dixon, Kathryn Bowers, Michael Hooks Sr., Michael Hooks Jr., and Calvin Williams. Dixon was convicted at trial of taking bribes from E-Cycle Management in a sting operation. Williams was convicted of taking $5000 to influence the Shelby County Commissions vote on a grant for a community center. Hooks Sr. pleaded guilty to taking money from E-Cycle. The others have yet to go to trial.
The Main Street Sweeper has swept up Edmund Ford and Rickey Peete. Both have pleaded innocent and have yet to be tried. The charge involves taking bribes for zoning billboards for a minor player in the business.
So far then, we have a bribe for a day-care center and bribes for a billboard, and bribes for dealings with a phony company that was not really doing public business. Four years after the onset of Tennessee Waltz, not one indictment for a road project, a public building, a sports facility, a major zoning case, an MLGW contract, or a big bond deal.
Members of the City Council and County Commission vote on hundreds of six-figure and seven-figure-and-up deals every year. Not one has been shown or even formally alleged to have been tainted by corruption.
Corruption and the rumor of corruption are two different things. If Michael Hooks Sr. or Edmund Ford or Rickey Peete or someone else eventually gives prosecutors a list of names and tainted votes and criminal payoffs and prosecutors produce indictments and convictions, then it will time to reevaluate whether Memphis is in the big leagues of corruption.
But its too early to make the judgment. A day-care center grant and a billboard case, in the scheme of things, are not big deals.
How long do you think it will take the national media to follow the strands of the fired federal prosecutors story to Tennessee? I'd say about two weeks, at most.
On April 9th, former state senator John Ford goes on trial in federal court in Memphis. He's a big fish in his own right and he's the uncle of Harold Ford Jr., who is a celebrity, and the brother of Harold Ford Sr., who had his own federal trials in 1990 and 1993. The second trial, which resulted in Ford's acquittal, was marked by exactly the sort of political meddling in the Justice Department that is now being exposed in the Bush administration.
There are so many good angles it's hard to cram them all in, but here goes.
Don Sundquist's name could come up in the John Ford trial because the powerful senator from Shelby County was a go-to guy from 1994 to 2002, when Sundquist was governor. Ford has a May 22nd trial date in Nashville on charges related to consulting.
But there's much more. When he was a congressman in 1991, Sundquist recommended that Hickman Ewing Jr. be replaced by Ed Bryant as U.S. attorney for Western Tennessee. Ewing and his assistants were on the trail of Harold Ford Sr., who confronted Ewing in an elevator in the federal building in 1989 and told him, "You are a pitiful excuse for a U.S. attorney, but I can guarantee you that you won't be the U.S. attorney much longer."
Like the eight fired prosecutors who are now in the news, Ewing was replaced in mid-term. Ewing, Sundquist, and Bryant are Republicans, while Ford is a Democrat. In 1993, Bill Clinton was the newly elected president, and when Democrats in the Justice Department tried to influence jury selection in the second Ford trial, the government's two trial attorneys resigned, albeit for only a day. So did Bryant, who was going to be replaced anyway along with 92 other U.S. attorneys as part of the new administration.
Sundquist, of course, went on to become governor. In his second term, when Tennessee Waltz was still just a song, federal prosecutors began an investigation of fraudulent state contracts. One close friend of Sundquist, John Stamps, was sentenced to two years in prison in 2005. Another Sundquist friend, Al Ganier, was indicted on federal obstruction charges in 2004. Three years later, he doesn't even have a trial date. But in a court order in 2005, U.S. district judge Karl Forester wrote that Sundquist was "the impetus" for the federal investigation and said prosecutors had evidence that Sundquist "improperly interceded" on Ganier's behalf.
Sundquist has not been charged and has said he is confident he is not under investigation. If the phrase "improperly interceded" rings a bell, that's what has Joseph Lee on the hot seat over at MLGW in connection with another Ford, brother Edmund.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors in Memphis and Nashville who were there at the start of the political corruption investigations have moved on. In Memphis, Terry Harris took a job with FedEx. In Nashville, Jim Vines resigned in 2006, and first assistant Zach Fardon left in January.
Will Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resign? He apparently lied about what he knew about the firings and when he knew it. Lying can be criminal. It was one of the factors that got Roscoe Dixon such a harsh prison sentence, and it's one of the charges against Michael Hooks Jr., scheduled to go to trial later this year.
The bumbling of the Justice Department has been criticized by, among others, Bud Cummins, former U.S. attorney in Arkansas, who was fired last year to make room for a pal of Karl Rove and then smeared by his old bosses. Two years ago, Cummins, a Republican, staunchly defended Gonzales and President Bush.
If Republican prosecutors are upset, how do you suppose Democratic pols feel about being seven times as likely as Republicans to be indicted? A suggested opening argument in the John Ford trial: "Ladies and gentlemen, in the 1996 presidential election, Memphis delivered Tennessee, whose electoral votes clinched it for Clinton/Gore. The Republicans and Karl Rove never got over it, and Mr. Ford is the victim of a political vendetta by a Justice Department whose leadership lies."
As the mayoral race heats up, the 1991 law that abolished runoffs in Memphis mayoral and at-large City Council elections is ripe for reconsideration.
Simply put, Memphis is clearly a majority-black city (63 percent in the 2005 census update). When the minority becomes the majority, is there still a need for election laws imposed by the federal courts "to eradicate minority-vote dilution"?
The question looms as Mayor Willie Herenton seeks to stay in office for a fifth consecutive four-year term. With the filing deadline for the October election still more than four months away, he already faces three challengers: Carol Chumney, Herman Morris, and John Willingham. Ironically, the elimination of the majority-vote requirement that helped Herenton win the office in 1991 could now give hope to challengers who might have a harder time defeating the mayor one-on-one.
"There is a school of thought that says we could have a mayor elected with 34 to 37 percent of the vote," says Greg Duckett, chairman of the Shelby County Election Commission. The figures are not far-fetched. In the 2006 9th Congressional District Democratic primary, Steve Cohen led the 15-candidate field with 31 percent. Cohen is white, and his leading challengers were black, as is the majority of the district.
With a runoff, the top two finishers face off, giving voters an either-or proposition and encouraging alliances among candidates who finish out of the running or drop out before the election. Herenton himself has twice been elected with less than 50 percent of the vote. In 1991, he got just over 49 percent, and in 1999, he got 46 percent.
A brief history lesson is in order: When the Memphis City Charter was overhauled in 1966, the authors, most of them white, decided on a City Council with seven district seats and six at-large seats. In an at-large council election or a mayoral election, the charter stated that if the leading vote-getter fell short of a majority, then there would be a runoff between the top two candidates.
The demographics of Memphis were very different in 1966. As recounted by Rhodes College political scientists Marcus Pohlmann and Michael Kirby in their book Racial Politics at the Crossroads, black civil rights leader Vasco Smith said "we don't stand a ghost of a chance in this town when it comes to running at-large" because white voters heavily outnumbered black voters and voted as a bloc.
During the 1970s and 1980s, at-large seats and the runoff provision helped whites maintain their grip on the City Council and the mayor's office. In 1982, for example, black city councilman J.O. Patterson Jr. led the mayoral field with 40.7 percent to 29.8 percent for white runner-up Dick Hackett. But in the runoff, Hackett defeated Patterson 54 percent to 46 percent.
The world changed in 1991. The United States Department of Justice filed suit under the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act against the election process in Memphis. It was in 1965 that President Lyndon Johnson pushed the Voting Rights Act through Congress after civil rights marchers were thrashed by police in Selma, Alabama.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act bans voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. The act has been amended five times, most recently in 1992. In a key amendment, the act has been interpreted as banning practices that have a discriminatory result as well a discriminatory purpose. The Justice Department or private citizens can sue under Section 2. In a landmark ruling in U.S. v. City of Memphis, the late U.S. district judge Jerome Turner ordered a plan "which will eradicate the minority vote dilution." The result was the end of runoff elections in mayoral and other citywide races.
In the closest election in Memphis mayoral history, Herenton defeated Hackett six weeks after Turner's ruling by 142 votes out of 247,973 votes cast. Each of them got 49.4 percent of the vote, with white crank candidate Robert "Prince Mongo" Hodges getting the rest.
In the 1990 census, the black-white population ratio in Memphis was 55-45. In 2000, the black-white ratio was 61-34. Some people have tried to estimate the percentage of eligible voters who are black or white, but Duckett says that is guesswork because voters don't have to declare and there are a large number of "others."
In 1995, the City Council amended the charter by ordinance, and the council now consists of seven regular districts and two super districts with three members each. But the change "appeared to have no effect or intended effect on the existing law concerning mayoral elections," says city attorney Sara Hall. "Nobody has done anything that would overtly change what Judge Turner ordered us to do. The question now is should we."
While not advocating or discouraging such action, Duckett agreed there are "sufficient facts" to challenge the runoff law. There is a precedent. In 1988, Dr. Talib-Karim Muhammad filed a class-action suit in Memphis challenging at-large elections. The lawsuit was incorporated in the Justice Department's action.
Another change since 1991 is the higher incidence of crossover voting as opposed to racial bloc voting. Herenton and Cohen and a handful of other Memphis politicians have enjoyed a significant measure of crossover votes.
Could a white Memphian sue under Section 2? While telling the Flyer she does not know the particulars in Memphis, Justice Department spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson noted a recent case in Mississippi, United States v. Ike Brown and Noxubee County. This is the first case filed by the Justice Department in which it alleges that whites are being subjected to voting discrimination on the basis of race.
The issue of runoffs in the mayoral race and citywide races should be raised and decided sooner rather than later so voters and candidates know the score -- and the scoring system.
The MLGW story has legs, but the county public school realignment has even longer legs. MLGW is good water-cooler fodder. School zones determine where people live and how the county grows. If I were a decision maker, I'd be picking the brains of two people: Willie Herenton and developer Jackie Welch. Herenton knows this story cold and could predict the ramifications better than anyone because of his experience in the city school system when it still looked a little bit like the county system. Welch made a great living selling new school sites to the county for 20 years. The two men are anything but friends, but they agree on a surprising number of things on this issue, and anyone who ignores or demonizes either of them will get it wrong.
• Regionalism does matter. That's one of the conclusions that can be drawn in the post-mortem of Marion, Arkansas' failure to land the new Toyota manufacturing plant. Not only did Mississippi governor Haley Barbour out-hustle the competition, he lined up support for Tupelo from the governor of Alabama. Last time I looked, Alabama also borders Tennessee. The Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce took a my-governor-right-or-wrong approach, and Marion/Memphis once again came up empty-handed. It's time for the chamber's board and local business leaders to do some soul searching.
• Speaking of the chamber of commerce, the front-page news in last weekend's Nashville Tennessean was the latest news of the weird in the continuing saga of football player Adam "Pacman" Jones of the Tennessee Titans. The front-page story in last weekend's Commercial Appeal was the latest news of the weird in the continuing saga of Mayor Willie Herenton. In which city would you rather be running the chamber or building a career or a business?
• Everyone's an editor these days, and the problem of sourcing a story has never been clearer than it is in the MLGW saga. MLGW spokeswoman Gale Jones Carson was Willie Herenton's spokeswoman until this year. Former MLGW president Herman Morris is running against Herenton for mayor. A story that suggests the Morris years were golden years is most likely pro-Morris spin. A story from Carson must be treated as pro-Herenton spin. Board members were appointed by Herenton but are supposed to show independence and represent citizens. One of them, Nick Clark, wrote an opinion column for The Commercial Appeal Tuesday saying Joe Lee should quit.
• The Morris style is a mystery. He announced his candidacy at The Peabody in front of a mostly geriatric crowd that buffered him from the news media. A picture was worth a thousand words. A couple days later, knowing full well that political storms were brewing in Memphis, he headed for California for an NAACP function. Odd timing.
• The story about the $12.5 million settlement between the Federal Communications Commission and four radio networks (including Clear Channel) representing more than 1,500 stations got buried beneath other news. But opening the airways was a big deal at the National Conference for Media Reform in Memphis in January. In theory, the settlement will mean a greater variety of music and programming. We'll see.
• There are a couple of pieces of good news for downtown Memphis. First, notice the bulldozers and tree-clearing on Mud Island north of the Interstate 40 bridge. It's preparation for more houses and apartments on the last large piece of undeveloped property on the island. Second, the University of Memphis law school is proceeding with plans to move to the old Front Street post office and customs house. James Smoot, dean of the law school, said last week the move-in is scheduled for 2009.
• A confusing and little-noticed change in the Memphis City Charter could make it possible for newcomers to run for council and even mayor this year. The original charter says mayoral candidates have to be residents of Memphis for five years. But at this writing, city attorney Sara Hall was researching the question. I'm not the only one confused. When I called the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Election Commission last week, both chief administrators thought that the five-year requirement was still in place. If we're wrong, watch for a fresh face with big-name support to jump in.
A few weeks ago, about 60 of Mayor Willie Herenton's big financial backers joined him for lunch at Folk's Folly steakhouse. It was the mayor's way of thanking them for contributing $1,000 to "sponsor" his annual Christmas party last year.
"Herenton's Hypocrites" is how one attendee described it, suggesting that some of those attending were either ambivalent or secretly opposed to a fifth consecutive four-year term for Herenton.
In politics as in sports, they say money talks and bullshit walks. Not quite. As has been the mayor's practice in other years, the prospective "sponsors" get a letter from the mayor's special assistant, Pete Aviotti. If you're a lawyer, developer, or businessman who has dealings with the city of Memphis, it could well take more nerve to say "sorry, not this time" to a 16-year-incumbent mayor than to write a personal or corporate check. It could be foolish to say no. At any rate, the "host committee" included 82 names, among them Jack Belz, Richard Fields, Dick Hackett, Michael Heisley, Rusty Hyneman, Arnold Perl, Gayle Rose, Fred Smith, and Henry Turley.
Who wouldn't be fortified by backers like that? On New Year's Day, Herenton spoke at a prayer breakfast and appealed to the crowd to keep him "on the wall." Later that morning, he confirmed that he plans to run for mayor again but declined to talk about it, taking questions only about his proposal for a new stadium. When he presented his stadium plans in slightly more detail last week, there was a notable absence of big-business supporters and potential stadium sponsors.
A person who attended the thank-you luncheon said that the mayor was asked if he "loves" the job and that he replied, in so many words, no, but he will do it for the good of Memphis -- a variant of the "on the wall" theme. He told the questioner at the luncheon that he fears that if he does not run then the mayoral field will be wide open, as the 9th District congressional field was when Harold Ford Jr. abandoned his seat to run for Senate. And, he added, in a winner-take-all free-for-all, anything can happen.
There is another side to that, however. Intentionally or not, Herenton, who has $527,328 in his election fund, has made it difficult for credible challengers to muster the supporters and money they need to run or test the waters.
The mayor's job is too important for all this coyness and mystery. Are the big donors hypocrites or hardcores? There's at least one way to find out. Get them to put their mouth where their money is. So here's the deal. Anyone who wrote a $1,000 check to Aviotti for Herenton's 2006 Christmas party or his 2007 reelection campaign within the last three months can play. You get this space, 700 words, to tell Memphis why Herenton should be mayor -- again.
The only condition: You have to write the thing yourself or with the help of others who gave $1,000. And you have to sign it. If you hire a ghostwriter or public-relations firm to help, you have to identify them by name, and then you still have to sign it. Once the piece is done, you can pass it around to everyone who was at Folk's Folly -- you know who you are -- and ask them to co-sign.
We'll run the piece unedited, and if it goes longer than 700 words, I'm sure one of my colleagues will donate extra space.
The offer stands for four weeks. That will give mayoral-race candidates and prospective candidates time to ponder your words.
Nominating petitions can't be picked up until April 20th. The qualifying deadline is July 19th. The election is October 4th. There is still time for pretenders to reconsider and for undeclared contenders to jump in. Let's hear the case for four more years.
No other Memphis mayor has served four consecutive terms, much less five. Herenton says journalists are out of touch and don't appreciate the depth of support he has. Fair enough. Start typing and show us the depth of support the mayor has among his chief financial donors and prospective partners in the private sector.