Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Burning Questions After the Bruce Thompson Indictment

Posted By on Tue, Nov 13, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Ten questions in the wake of the indictment of former Shelby County commissioner Bruce Thompson. Sorry, the questions are better than the answers at this stage of the game.

Is Memphis in some kind of Gilded Age of Corruption? Or are federal prosecutors just looking harder and calling them closer?

I would say both. Statistically, there were more indictments for political corruption from 2003-2007 than any period I can remember in my 25 years as a reporter in Memphis. It seemed like everyone had some kind of deal going. Big contracts for FedExForum, school construction, and Tenn-Care services opened the door to self-styled consultants.

Some politicians and government employees became envious when they saw what people they considered less influential than themselves were making off of those projects. Remember the taped comments of Roscoe Dixon and Barry Myers on this subject. And, as I wrote last week, I think minority participation was perverted from a worthy goal to an excuse for corruption.

On the other hand, I think federal prosecutors are calling them closer. The office runs in cycles, from high-volume, quick-turnover cases to time-consuming public corruption cases. We’re in the latter stage now. No way do I believe the indictments of former MLGW chief executive Joseph Lee (for cutting Edmund Ford some slack on his utility bill) and Michael Hooks Jr. (for perjury and rigging invoices for less than $10,000 to Juvenile Court) would have been sought in other years. What's the difference between John Ford and Bruce Thompson?

Media villain and media darling, for one thing. Ford allegedly got more than $800,000 from Tenn-Care contractors. Thompson allegedly got more than $260,000 from H&M Construction. It's interesting that the federal indictment of Ford, which came out of Nashville, not Memphis, says the public was deprived of his honest services. But the indictment of Thompson makes it sound like H&M was the victim because Thompson "falsely" purported to be able to influence votes on the Memphis school board. U.S. Attorney David Kustoff did nothing to clear this up in his brief press conference announcing the Thompson indictment.

Did the Feds need to get a white Republican?

They'll never say it, but of course they did. At the national and Memphis level, the Feds are under pressure for allegedly (hah!) having a bias against blacks and Democrats and those who are not loyal to George W. Bush. I'm not saying there is a quota system or anything, but prosecutors are human like the rest of us.

Did the FBI "miss" Thompson in Tennessee Waltz?

There are indications that Thompson got a hard look in the Tennessee Waltz investigation. His name came up in a taped conversation between an E-Cycle Management executive (in reality, an FBI agent) and Charles Love, a Chattanooga bag man. If you look at the timeline, 2004 was a critical year. Tennessee Waltz got underway in 2003 and became public in May, 2005. After May, 2005, any public official who took chances had to be reckless or crazy.

Who is the victim?

Again, I think that is one of the questions that Thompson and his attorneys are likely to raise. Thompson allegedly got $263,000 for helping H&M get a $46 million contract. Real estate agents and investment brokers can relate to that kind of "commission." Thompson got an opinion from Shelby County attorney Brian Kuhn that it was all right for him to consult for H&M, although the specifics of what Kuhn was told about the arrangement by Thompson are likely more complicated than that. And I’ll bet Kuhn hedged his advice.

From 2002-2006, Thompson was a high-profile commissioner and an up-front advocate of privatization. After his term ended, he continued to stay in the public eye on politics and do occasional commentary. He didn't act like someone with something to hide. And to my knowledge, he is pretty well-to-do and doesn’t need money. In other words, I don't get it.

When is a campaign contribution a bribe?

n the minds of some people, they're synonymous. But a contribution within the legal limit that is reported is not a crime, as far as I can see. Even if it's in cash. In a sense, every contribution is intended to buy some access, influence, or official action (or inaction) down the road. When prosecutors start going after campaign contributions just because their timing was suspect or they weren't reported, they will have gone too far in my opinion.

What happened to the $7,000 to Kirby Salton?

Salton was H&M's minority partner. He has been quoted fairly extensively in The Commercial Appeal and apparently cooperated with prosecutors. The Thompson indictment is vague about the $7000 -- and so was Kustoff in the press conference. It still is not clear whether any or all of it got to school board members and/or their associates. And there is an obvious imbalance if Thompson got $263,000 for consulting and one or more board members who actually voted on the construction contract got $7000 in campaign contributions. I would think H&M has to be savvy enough to ask what the hell was going on with their money.

Would Thompson's actions have been illegal if he were not a commissioner?

The way the indictment reads, I would say no. The indictment uses the word "extortion" in a way that is probably unfamiliar to most people who associate it with guns, fists, and dirty looks. This came up in the John Ford trial, where the jury was puzzled by it and ultimately didn't convict Ford on some counts. As used in the Ford and Thompson indictments, extortion (to oversimplify and avoid legalese) means using your official position unlawfully to get someone to do something.

There's a pretty simple test for public officials. Would anyone consult with you for money if were not a public official? Is what's right for you also right for all of your colleagues? And were you (or are you) a consultant before (or after) your political career? What's the deal with mail fraud?

Part of me thinks prosecutors use this junky charge to complicate the lives of reporters. Come on, say what you mean, Feds. We know you have to make it a federal case, but tell us this, in plain language: What is the underlying crime? Nobody sets out to commit mail fraud by sending money or a check or letter through the U.S. mail.

Are school board members out of the woods?

Probably not. Kustoff said the investigation is "ongoing" and he sounded like he meant it. The board changed its mind on the contractor award for three schools, or, perhaps more accurately, went along with the administration's recommendation to change to H&M. What went down between the first vote and the second vote? Thompson will probably get a chance to shed some light on this.

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