Thursday, February 28, 2008

Thompson's Guilty Plea Leaves Some Questions Unanswered

Posted By on Thu, Feb 28, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Former Shelby County commissioner Bruce Thompson, who proclaimed his innocence and determination to go to trial at a news conference in November, pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud in federal court Wednesday.

Thompson, a Republican from East Memphis, faces a maximum sentence of one year and a day as part of the plea agreement with prosecutors. Two mail fraud counts and an extortion count carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years and a $250,000 fine were dismissed. There is no fine or restitution in the plea agreement. Prosecutors said that will be up to the judge at sentencing, set for June.

In the four-count indictment last year, the government charged that Thompson, while a member of the county commission in 2004-2005, falsely represented to a Jackson, Tennessee construction firm that "by reason of his position as a commissioner, he had the ability to control the votes of members of the Memphis City School Board" on a $46 million contract to build three schools.

The company, a joint venture of H&M Construction and minority-owned firm Salton-Fox Construction, paid Thompson $263,992. The school board unanimously awarded the contract to H&M and Salton-Fox in 2004, reversing a decision earlier that year to give it to Inman Construction.

On Wednesday, Thompson told U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla that he did in fact make false statements to H&M president Jim Campbell about his influence and the make-or-break nature of campaign contributions if H&M wanted the contract.

While on the commission, Thompson was a proponent of ethics reform. He decided not to seek reelection in 2006. Shortly after he was indicted, Thompson told reporters "I have done nothing wrong" and "I reject the implication that anything has been done in the back of the room or in the dark." In 2004, he obtained an opinion from Shelby County Attorney Brian Kuhn that it would not be a conflict of interest under state statute for him to try to help a company get business with the city or county school systems because he would be paid by the company and would not be voting on the contract award. Kuhn did not know what Thompson had told H&M, and his opinion said nothing about legality.

The indictment said that as part of the scheme to defraud, Thompson "would falsely represent that he had made commitments to give campaign contributions" to school board members and "did cause to be placed a check in the amount of $7,000 addressed to Kirby Salton from H&M."

When the indictment was announced, United States Attorney David Kustoff would say only that it was ongoing and the $7,000 was for "campaign contributions." FBI Special Agent in Charge My Harrison made headlines when she said at a news conference, "What can I say? Same game, different names," obviously linking Thompson's case to other Memphis political corruption cases.

It is not clear what happened to the $7,000. Asssistant U.S. Attorney Tim DiScenza said there was a meeting of an unnamed board member, a person with the board member, a representative of Salton-Fox, and Thompson at which $2000 went to the person with the board member. DiScenza said Salton gave another $2000 to $4000 to Thompson and kept the rest himself. Kirby Salton has publicly stated that he gave $2,000 to Wanda Halbert's campaign through an associate of Halbert. But Halbert said she was unaware of that until asked about it in a grand jury session last year, and said the money was either lost or stolen. She subsequently listed it on her disclosure form.

Salton and Halbert give differing accounts of the meeting. The plea agreement did not clear that up, but DiScenza said that if Thompson's case had gone to trial there would have been no proof that Thompson and any board members had a deal.

It also left questions about the legality of consulting by public officials and the leniency of Thompson's sentence compared to the harsh treatment of some Tennessee Waltz defendants for taking much smaller amounts of money.

Former state senator John Ford was convicted of taking $55,000 from an undercover FBI agent posing as a businessman to influence legislation. Ford was sentenced to five and one half years in prison. Ford said he was acting as a consultant. He faces a second federal trial in Nashville on charges relating to his consulting work for Tenn-Care contractors. Former school board member Michael Hooks Jr. is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to unlawfully taking $3,000 for bogus consulting invoices to Shelby County Juvenile Court. Convicted Tennessee Waltz defendants Roscoe Dixon and Kathryn Bowers also described themselves as consultants.

School construction in Memphis and Shelby County has been a booming business for decades due to suburban sprawl and decaying inner-city schools. By 2004, with the arrival of new Memphis superintendent Carol Johnson, it was deemed so expensive and disorganized that a joint venture of O.T. Marshall Architects and Self-Tucker Architects was hired to inspect all schools and decide which ones to close, rebuild, or replace. That set off a scramble of established construction firms to finds minority partners to have a better chance of getting a piece of the business. Tom Marshall, an architect and member of the City Council at the time, was head of the project. Marshall, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing, testified before the grand jury that indicted Thompson.

Thompson is not an architect, engineer, or attorney, and apparently earned his money from H&M by providing political contacts, introductions and political advice - some of it apparently legal and extremely valuable and some of it false and illegal. Attempts to reach Campbell at H&M were unsuccessful.

A former prosecutor who did not want to be identified speculated that the government "maybe wanted to clear the air on whether board members were dirty" by disposing of Thompson's case. Another former prosecutor, Mike Cody, said that based on news accounts, "it looks like it kind of cleared everybody else."

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