If William B. Tanner is convicted of bribing the late Chancellor Floyd Peete Jr., his punishment should be confinement to a tropical paradise with two other people, $1 million, a couple of lawyers, and a video camera to record them making each other miserable.
Tanner was playing Survivor long before reality television. Forty years ago, he made his first million when a million still meant something. He was 34.
He made millions more over the years. At age 74, he should be enjoying the fruits of his labor, his family, his hard-won health, and the satisfactions of giving some of his fortune away, maybe to search for new treatments for the cancer that plagues him.
Instead, he is under indictment for the second time in 20 years, charged with bribing a judge to win a nasty, six-year dispute over -- what else? -- money. Both indictments stemmed from multimillion-dollar sales of Tanner companies that ought to have been career highlights. Now Peete has his reputation besmirched but can't do anything about it. He died of a heart attack in 2002, a year after ruling in Tanner's favor. Tanner gets to spend his gold and golden years fighting an indictment and haggling with lawyers and could go to prison for up to six years if convicted.
If there was ever a reminder that money can be both a blessing and a curse, this is it. Tanner and his ex-partner Jerry Peck fell out shortly after joining forces in the billboard business in 1992. Peck had the know-how and the political contacts. Tanner had the capital and the salesmanship and, among other things, the billboard rights along U.S. Highway 61 in DeSoto County. Casinos were coming to Tunica, and road signs were as precious as slot machines.
But one should not enter into a competitive enterprise with Tanner without a jock strap and an opinion from the United States Supreme Court, preferably unanimous. He thrives on competition and hardship and has been doing it since growing up in the Missouri Bootheel during the Depression.
The Tanner-Peck business succeeded but the partnership failed. In 1996, Tanner sold the company to Universal Outdoor Advertising for $71 million. Peck claimed he owned 5 percent of the business with an option entitling him to as much as 49 percent. Tanner disagreed.
Seventy-one million dollars would seem to be enough for both of them. They could have split the difference. They could have cut cards. They could have had a fistfight and a beer and shook hands and moved on. Instead, they called their lawyers.
The case dragged on for five years, filling folder after folder and eventually a filing cabinet at Chancery Court with documents, depositions, claims, and counterclaims. If scholars ever do a case study of the human psychosis that enables lawyers to charge $250 an hour, this would make a good start.
The case came to trial in 2001, starting in March and ending in May. Peete ruled in Tanner's favor in October 2001, concluding that there was no partnership at all, and Peck was entitled to nothing. But Tanner wasn't through. He wanted attorney fees as well. In November, Peete ruled that Peck had to pay Tanner's lawyers $719,586.
In August 2002, Peete died at a vacation home in Florida, reportedly of a heart attack. Peck appealed to the Court of Appeals as rumblings began that the fix was in. People familiar with the case say the main accuser was someone close to Peete's family and that the bribes included credit card charges, travel and vacations, and money for a Peete family member to start a business. Sources would only speak anonymously, taking their cue from the one-paragraph indictment and Shelby County district attorney Bill Gibbons, whose only comment was that "this type of crime attacks the integrity of our judicial system."
Gibbons ordered the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to look into the accusations in May 2003. In light of the findings, Peete's ruling was negated. The appeals courts sent the case back to the trial court, which booted it to the Tennessee Supreme Court. It could be heard as early as April, according to appellate court clerk Susan Turner.
Peete was elected chancellor in 1990. In 1999, he was overruled by the Court of Appeals on a case in which he favored Penn National Gaming's efforts to start a horseracing track in Memphis even though the Tennessee Racing Commission had been abolished and Gibbons had vowed to oppose it. In 2003, the appellate court overruled Peete's 2002 decision in favor of developer Rusty Hyneman in a divorce case. Tanner and Hyneman were business partners in an aborted hotel project on Beale Street in 2003. •