Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Thompson to Feds: This Is No Game

Posted on Wed, Nov 14, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Less than an hour after pleading not guilty to federal corruption charges Wednesday, former county commissioner Bruce Thompson, who is a competitive tennis player, took a few swings at the style and substance of the government's case.

"This is not a game," Thompson said in media appearance in attorney Leslie Ballin's office. "This is my life. This is my freedom that is on the line here."

That was a swipe at FBI Special Agent in Charge My Harrison who said Tuesday, "Same game, different name," after the indictment was handed up.

The phrase proved irresistible to print and broadcast media outlets, and Thompson said he resented it. He said his case has nothing in common with Tennessee Waltz, that he is entitled to the presumption of innocence, that he plans to go to trial, and that he expects to be found innocent.

"I have done nothing wrong, as I have said from the beginning," said Thompson, who was a commissioner from 2002-2006.

The indictment alleges that Thompson extorted $263,000 from H&M Construction by "falsely representing" that he could influence school board members to award the company a $46 million contract, and that the company would stand little chance without his influence.

Thompson, 48, left the media appearance without taking questions.

He and Ballin made it clear that part of their defense will hang on an opinion issued by Shelby County Attorney Brian Kuhn in a memorandum in 2004. The opinion, which was actually given twice in slightly different form in February and again in August, was requested by Thompson.

"In my opinion, it would not be a conflict of interest for you to act as a consultant for a large public company in aiding them to try to get business and/or contracts with the Memphis City Schools or the Shelby County Schools," Kuhn wrote.

The opinion does not say whether or not it would be legal. Ballin told reporters that if he had been asking for the opinion as an attorney he would have gotten Kuhn to be specific about the legality as well as the conflict of interest question.

Ballin said the dollar amounts reported as being paid to Thompson in the indictment are accurate. But he disputed the part of the indictment that involves Thompson in the payment of $7,000 in apparent campaign contributions or other payments to school board members via minority contractor Kirby Salton.

Ballin said that $263,000 would be a reasonable fee -- roughly one half of one percent of the contract -- for helping H&M get the business. He said Thompson had other consulting clients at the time, but he declined to name them.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla. Ballin said he thinks it could go to trial as early as next February.

Earlier Wednesday afternoon, Thompson formally entered a plea of not guilty in a brief appearance at the federal building. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years on each of the four counts on which he was indicted.

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