Thursday, February 26, 2009

Gaming the Numbers

What's the real cost of bringing the Liberty Bowl into ADA compliance?

Posted By on Thu, Feb 26, 2009 at 4:00 AM

City attorney Elbert Jefferson says it would cost $40 million to bring Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

What's wrong with this statement? In a word, everything.

Jefferson who, needless to say, is not an architect, contractor, or engineer, did not give a basis or source for his number. And since the Herenton administration is on lockdown these days as far as communicating with the press and the public, no one else did either.

But back in December 2007, parks and recreation director Cindy Buchanan told the Flyer she was optimistic that the cost of ADA improvements would be $4.7 million or less. The basis for her optimism was a 2007 ADA study for the Park Commission, supported by visits Buchanan made personally to the stadium on game days with members of the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. The study said it would cost $4,799,708 to provide 219 wheelchair seats and 219 companion seats. Jefferson's out-of-the-blue $40 million is more than eight times that number.

But the real eye-opener came last week from University of Memphis sports information director Bob Winn. He told me the highest number of tickets sold last season for wheelchair seats was eight. The total for the season was 48. The highest total for any single game in the last three years was 50 in 2006 when Memphis played the University of Tennessee.

The stadium has a total of 133 wheelchair seats. They are located at the main entry level on the east side of the stadium, from the end zone to midfield. The capacity of the stadium is 61,641. Average home attendance last year for the University of Memphis, according to Winn, was 25,003, counting tickets sold, student passes, and walk-ups. Actual game attendance was several thousand lower.

Any way you look at it, there were tens of thousands of empty seats, and more than 100 unused wheelchair seats at every game. Wheelchair users who regularly attend games confirmed to the Flyer in a story that ran in December 2007 that they have never seen demand exceed supply.

The Liberty Bowl is used roughly nine times a year for college football. The AutoZone Liberty Bowl game and the Southern Heritage Classic each drew slightly less than 40,000 fans last year, although the number of tickets sold exceeded 50,000.

The Liberty Bowl has more wheelchair seats — and they are more accessible and in better viewing locations — than one of the most famous college football stadiums in the country.

The University of Michigan settled a landmark ADA lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice on March 10, 2008. Michigan Stadium, the celebrated "Big House," seats more than 107,000 fans and has been sold out for every game for 35 years. The stadium has 81 pairs of seats for wheelchair users and companions. When a renovation and expansion are completed in 2010, there will be 592 seats, including companion seats, dispersed throughout the stadium.

The key issue — and the source of much confusion — is the federal ADA guideline of making 1 percent of seats wheelchair-accessible and dispersed throughout the stadium. Counting companion seats, the standard is more like 2 percent.

In Michigan's case, the settlement figure is approximately half of 1 percent, including companion seats. In its negotiations with the Department of Justice, the University of Michigan argued that the proposed remedy was put forth "with no evidence that patrons with mobility impairments will purchase even a small fraction of what might be constructed."

At the Liberty Bowl, 1 percent would mean 616 wheelchair seats and 616 companion seats. The proposed 219 pairs of seats, which is the basis for the $4,799,708 estimate, works out to $21,916 per wheelchair seat.

It isn't clear what the city's game is. Maybe a $40 million ADA "estimate" makes $4.8 million look like a bargain. Or maybe the $40 million added to the additional $60 million that a judge says the city has to cough up for schools makes a nice round $100 million — and a cover-up for waste somewhere else or a nasty upcoming fiscal surprise.

One thing's for sure. Memphis has much greater needs than adding unnecessary seats to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Misery Loves Company

From coast to coast, public officials are behaving badly.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 19, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Don't beat yourself up too much, Memphis. You're not alone.

Here's a little roundup of recent stories on the investigations, scandals, and mayor-bashing in cities to which Memphis is sometimes compared.

Birmingham, Alabama: From The New York Times in December: "The mayor of this city, Larry P. Langford, was arrested by federal agents Monday and charged with taking bribes in exchange for doling out county financial business to a favored firm when he led the Jefferson County Commission from 2002 to 2006."

Langford pleaded not guilty to taking $236,000 in clothes, jewelry, and cash in exchange for his support and remains in office. He is scheduled to go on trial in May.

Detroit, Michigan: From the Huffington Post website two weeks ago: "Kwame Kilpatrick regained his freedom Tuesday morning, emerging from jail after a 99-day sentence and stepping back onto the streets of the city he once ruled as mayor."

Two Detroit Free Press reporters won the George Polk Award for stories about text messages, which showed that Kilpatrick and former chief of staff Christine Beatty lied at a police whistleblower trial in 2007, when they denied having an extramarital affair or firing a deputy. The text messages have been the talk of the town for more than a year.

Or they were until last month, when, according to the Detroit News: "FBI agents investigating alleged City Hall corruption delivered a grand jury subpoena to a former aide of Detroit City Council president Monica Conyers."

Some will say that's just Detroit for you. Well, let's go out west to a place that is a perennial contender for most desirable, cleanest, and most progressive city in the same lists that put Memphis near the bottom.

Portland, Oregon: From Willamette Week last week: "Three weeks after Portland mayor Sam Adams admitted lying about his sexual relationship in 2005 with then-teenager Beau Breedlove, Adams is gently trying to return to city business as usual."

Adams took office in January, making Portland the largest U.S. city with an openly gay mayor. The state attorney general has opened an investigation.

Baltimore, Maryland: From the Baltimore Sun this week: "At a time when the city is vying for state dollars in a tough economy, Sheila Dixon, a Democrat in her third year as mayor, can ill afford strained relationships with policymakers in Annapolis. This year, there's a new potential complication: Dixon was charged last month with 12 counts of felony theft, fraud, perjury and misconduct in office. She has said she is innocent and vowed not to let the case interrupt the city's business."

Jackson, Mississippi: From The Clarion-Ledger last week: "Federal prosecutors on Thursday wrapped up their case against Mayor Frank Melton and Michael Recio, his former police bodyguard. ... Melton and Recio face civil rights charges related to a warrantless, police-style raid on a Jackson duplex in August 2006."

Melton, who is still in office, is scheduled to testify this week. He was acquitted in state criminal charges in 2007.

Another Jackson dateline, also from The Clarion-Ledger last week:

"Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter looked ashen as he pleaded not guilty to corruption charges involving millionaire Dickie Scruggs. The courtroom scene was a far cry from the days following the 1994 conviction of Klansman Byron De La Beckwith, when DeLaughter drew international praise for leading the successful prosecution of the 1963 assassination of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers."

Louisville, Kentucky: From The Courier-Journal in January: "First elected to Louisville's highest office in 1985, Jerry Abramson has earned the nickname Mayor for Life. But Abramson now is facing sharper and louder criticism than at any point during his two decades on the job — just as he considers whether to seek a final four-year term in 2010."

Under Abramson's leadership, Louisville consolidated its city and county governments. If Abramson is guilty of anything it is remaining in office too long.

"The uptick in Abramson bashing has been noticed, if not embraced, in the business and civic community," The Courier-Journal reported. "Dan Jones, CEO of 21st Century Parks, said he thinks there is more criticism in part because there are more outlets for it — such as blogs or comments at the end of online media stories. Such forums are a mixed blessing, Jones said, because they give citizens an opportunity to participate, but their anonymous nature can lead to unhealthy and unfair comments."

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Tennessee Lottery: Pot O' Gold?

Posted By on Fri, Feb 13, 2009 at 4:00 AM

John Branston says, let's have a "Happy Fifth Birthday" shout-out for the Tennessee Education Lottery.

Nothing screams "higher education" like Blazing 8s. Or Pot O' Gold, Bank Loot, Mad Money, Totally Topaz 7s, Winter Wonderland, Sacks of Cash, Deal or No Deal, Million Dollar Madness, Lotto 5, Lucky Sum, or Hottrax Champions ... Read the rest.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Fifth

A billion in sales, 76,000 scholars, and a few hard questions.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 12, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Let's have a "Happy Fifth Birthday" shout-out for the Tennessee Education Lottery.

Nothing screams "higher education" like Blazing 8s. Or Pot O' Gold, Bank Loot, Mad Money, Totally Topaz 7s, Winter Wonderland, Sacks of Cash, Deal or No Deal, Million Dollar Madness, Lotto 5, Lucky Sum, or Hottrax Champions.

Those are all names of lottery games that have helped drive annual revenues past the $1 billion mark since state government became a croupier in 2004. According to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission's annual report on the lottery last week, 76,000 Tennesseans got $225 million worth of lottery-funded scholarships in 2007-'08.

It was easy to be cynical about the Tennessee Education Lottery when it started five years ago. There was that Brave New World-like name, accurate in the same sense that the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is about sportswear.

There was the long road to passage under the guidance of Steve Cohen, then a maverick state senator from Memphis. The General Assembly upended a state constitutional ban on one form of gambling — lotteries — while upholding a ban on casinos.

Tunica casino operators said that their lavish resorts provided an experience you just can't get in a gas station or convenience store.

Journalists, myself included, called it a tax on stupidity and a reverse Robin Hood bill that took money from the poor to give it to the rich and the middle class in the form of college scholarships. Not to mention the indignity of having to stand in line behind some sap buying a $2 lottery ticket at my neighborhood convenience store while I patiently wait to buy essentials like beer and Doritos.

Today there are 4,700 places in Tennessee selling tickets and games. There are $1 million jackpots. The top scholarship award is $5,000 a year. Cohen is a second-term congressman. The lottery advertises on the Fox television hit program 24. And we savvy sophisticates who invested in mutual funds and dividend-paying bank stocks have lost half our life savings and seen the dividends disappear.

So, has the lottery been an unqualified success? I don't think so, and the annual report has a few troubling disclaimers, too:

Item: "As the program continues, the percentage of students in higher income brackets grows."

Item: "African-American students represent 12 percent of freshman recipients and 9 percent of all students on lottery scholarships." But they comprise 18 percent of the total undergraduate population, and they get only 1 percent of the $5,000 awards.

Item: Prior to 2008, 63 percent of lottery scholars lost their award by their third year. After standards were relaxed last year, 53 percent still lost their award.

Item: Two-thirds of recipients come from families with adjusted gross income (AGI) of $48,000 or more and 32 percent from families with AGI of $96,000 or more.

Item: "Students are staying in college at the same rate regardless of changes to scholarship renewal rates."

Item: Before the lottery, 81 percent of Tennessee's "best and brightest" went to college in-state. Now the figure is 84 percent. The biggest beneficiaries have been the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and private colleges.

Then there are the questions the annual report doesn't even address. Does the lottery generate new money? Hardly. With the exception of Alabama, Tennessee is surrounded by states with lotteries or casinos.

Full disclosure? More like bare minimum, when the topic is where the money comes from. Want to know the latest $1 million jackpot winner? No problem. Check the lottery website. The sales locations in your ZIP code? No problem. The top-selling locations in ZIP codes where most people live below the poverty line? Sorry, no can do.

Then there is the issue of government as shill. As researcher Robert Currey told the legislature in 2007, "Management MUST continue to find ways to increase sales." That means more commercials, more "instant" winner games, more online games, more similarities to casino gambling, and more hypocrisy.

Finally, there's this bailout thing. Congress is about to pass a bill with a price north of $800 billion. Some of that money will go to states like Tennessee, which can then pass it on to people suffering from the recession but still able to afford $1 billion in lottery tickets.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Federal Grand Jury

A pair of ex-prosecutors discuss the powerful investigative tool.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 5, 2009 at 4:00 AM

So what do we know about the investigation of Mayor Willie Herenton and how do we know it? A partial answer would be: A federal grand jury has been meeting, and the FBI has been going around interviewing people. But that raises more questions than it answers. When a grand jury meets, fact and rumor are easily confused, and the innocent often get lumped in with the guilty.

Hickman Ewing Jr. was the United States attorney in Memphis in the 1980s and one of the Whitewater prosecutors in the 1990s. Mike Cody was the United States attorney from 1977 to 1981, taking over when Democrat Jimmy Carter succeeded Republican Gerald Ford as president. I asked them about the independence of U.S. attorneys and the role of the grand jury in investigations of public officials.

How are local investigations affected when a new attorney general is sworn in, as Eric Holder was Tuesday in Washington?

While noting that it has been nearly 30 years since he was a federal prosecutor, Cody said, "The great majority of the decisions are made at the local level, although there is certainly communication on sensitive matters with people in the Public Integrity section." Cody said new U.S. attorneys typically go slow and do not open up or close big investigations. "The staff and professional people in the office are more valuable to you than you might be to them, certainly in the initial stages," he said.

Cody kept his predecessor's top assistants, Ewing and Dan Clancy, who would handle most of the high-profile corruption trials in Memphis for the next 15 years. The independence of the Memphis office was put to the test in 1993 when U.S. representative Harold Ford Sr. went on trial shortly after Democrat Bill Clinton became president. The late federal judge Jerome Turner famously quashed an attempt by the Justice Department to interfere with jury selection in the trial. Ford was acquitted.

What's the difference between an FBI interview and a grand jury subpoena?

"If they FBI asks to talk to you, you don't have to talk to them," Ewing said. "If you get a subpoena, then you do." FBI agents are sort of like reporters, only with better clothes and pensions. They interview all kinds of people in pursuit of the facts. The agent writes up a memo of the interview. "The problem with that is it isn't word for word. It's questionable whether it can ever be used," Ewing said.

What about a grand jury appearance?

"You get them in there under oath," Ewing said. Prosecutors and grand jurors get to see the demeanor of the witness. And prosecutors "lock 'em in" as to what they say, what they remember, and what they did. This testimony can be used at trial.

Is a grand jury investigation typically wide-ranging?

"A lot of times you call virtually every important witness to the grand jury," Ewing said. Because the grand jury's work is secret, there is a lot of speculation about targets. Ewing said, in his experience, "Normally you do not subpoena a target of a grand jury to appear before the grand jury." But the target does get an opportunity to appear, usually late in the game. "Most targets decline, but a few come," Ewing said.

Can a witness bring his or her lawyer into the grand jury room?

No, but the lawyer can be right outside, and the witness can leave the room to consult with the lawyer. Lying to a grand jury can bring a perjury charge.

Are witnesses sworn to secrecy?

"Witnesses can say anything they want about their appearance," Ewing said. "They can have a press conference if they want to." He recalled a target who refused to answer any questions in front of the grand jury, then went outside and told the press he had answered every question and said other things that prosecutors knew were not true.

Are subpoenas public information?

No, but reporters can hang around the federal building and the grand jury room and see who comes and goes.

Are some people, like the banking system, "too big to fail"?

Don't count on it. Former University of Memphis basketball coach Dana Kirk was investigated within a year of taking his team to the 1985 Final Four. Ford Sr. was tried twice at the height of his powers. So was John Ford.

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