Case of the "Torn Will" 

Regional state Senate race features a stranger-than-fiction- plot.

Brad Thompson; John Stevens

Brad Thompson; John Stevens

Memphis businessman Karl Schledwitz has played host to political candidates over the years, and his latest beneficiary, for an event this week, is a West Tennessean whose race for the state House of Representatives has taken a truly unusual twist.

Brad Thompson of Union City, a Democrat running for the open District 24 state Senate seat vacated this year by longtime incumbent Roy Herron, was scheduled to be the honoree at Schledwitz's house on Wednesday night for a fundraiser co-hosted by state senator Jim Kyle (D-Memphis), the Democrats' Senate leader.

What makes Thompson's race different from most is a sensational charge made by his campaign that his opponent, Republican John Stevens of Huntington, tore up and rewrote a widow's will while she lay unconscious on what turned out to be her deathbed in a hospital room. Stevens, a lawyer, has acknowledged doing the deed but says he did so with the advance permission of the woman, Ruth Keras of Huntington, who died a day later.

Whatever the facts, the case was settled out of court, and Stevens' revised will, which benefited the widow's brother and one Peggy Wilkes, was thrown out by a judge in favor of the original will, which divided the proceeds of Keras' estate between the brother and two charities, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital of Memphis and Youth Town of Tennessee.

Stevens had called the campaign allegations against him "a lie by a desperate campaign that is down double-digits. ... What you expect from an Obama-Pelosi Democrat."

Kyle, Thompson's Memphis co-host this week, responded by saying: "If Mr. Stevens has a poll showing a 'double-digit' lead, he should release it. I don't believe it. And as an attorney I can tell you, if somebody in my firm went into a dying patient's hospital room and tore up a will, he'd be an ex-member of the firm. There's no way you can make a positive out of that."

Kyle expressed confidence in Thompson's campaign and said, "We have a real chance to hold on to this seat. Stevens came out of a divisive primary, and we have a consensus candidate." The senator observed that the situation in the northwest Tennessee Senate district was "the reverse of what it used to be when Democrats had bitter primaries and Republicans agreed on a candidate."

• The Shelby County Election Commission (SCEC) has released the findings of the long-awaited state comptroller's report on glitches in the August 2012 election process in Shelby County. According to a summary of the findings by Rene Brison, assistant director of the division of investigation in the comptroller's office: "Our review identified no discernible evidence of intentional misconduct or other actions intended to affect or influence the election process or election outcomes in Shelby County. It appears that poor judgment and mistakes were the most likely causes of the ballot errors, and SCEC staff did not identify or correct the errors in a timely manner."   

Independent investigations by Steve Ross and Joe Weinberg, later corroborated by state officials, indicated that upwards of 3,000 Shelby County voters in August were given wrong ballots. The comptroller's report faults Shelby County Election Commission administrator Richard Holden for delays in ballot preparation, arising from a decision to wait on the Shelby County Commission's long-stalled efforts at redistricting. The report cited Holden for failure to prepare a timely backup plan and found that the commission board had failed to provide proper oversight.

The commission board has since imposed a three-day suspension and a six-month period of probation on Holden.

"We are pleased that the independent audit by the state of Tennessee found no issues beyond those already acknowledged and identified by the election commission," said commission chairman Robert D. Meyers. "We appreciate the work undertaken by the comptrollers' office. With no additional issues raised in the audit beyond the commission's self-evaluation, that means the steps already under way by the commission staff to improve processes, safeguards, and ballot accuracy are addressing the same issues and concerns as the state."

• Two former critics of a proposed half-cent increase in the county sales tax came forth in support of it on Monday, but another prominent naysayer, from county government itself, remains unmoved in his opposition.

The two converts were Memphis mayor A C Wharton and city councilman Shea Flinn, both of whom had originally been opposed to the proposal from Shelby County commissioner Mike Ritz, now the commission chairman. Their opposition had been based, essentially, on the fact that Ritz's proposal, adopted by the commission and later defended against an attempted veto by Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, would supersede and displace from the November 6th ballot a similar initiative for city residents only.

But after weeks of discussions with Ritz and others, notably Commissioner Steve Mulroy, Wharton and Flinn have become foursquare in their espousal of the county tax proposal, and no hint of reservation showed in their remarks at a morning press conference called to support the tax hike.

Wharton hailed the tax increase as a means of extending childhood education and pre-K programs throughout Shelby County and of providing "additional breathing room for some of the additional challenges we face." Flinn, the council's immediate past budget chairman and the sponsor of the now displaced half-cent tax proposal by the city, sounded similar notes and warned of the alternatives. "If you vote no to the sales tax, a property tax will be coming soon thereafter and we will miss out on an opportunity for pre-K and city improvements," he said.

Luttrell, who attended the press conference but did not speak, told reporters afterward there were "huge gaps in the general operation of our schools," notably in security provisions, adding up to "about a $6 million hole in the budget" that he said should be plugged "before we talk about expanding." The county mayor criticized the tax proposal for what he said was a lack of "specificity," and, when asked if he would vote for it, said, "At this point, no."

As if anticipating Luttrell's objections, Ritz had already tried to debunk charges that the proposed tax would be "premature." Such allegations "couldn't be more untrue," he said, citing the need for "a strategy to have the resources to do what we need to do." And Ritz had spelled out what he said the financial consequences of a no vote would be. If the county, which will shortly be the only body responsible for funding public education, were to pick up the burden of a $57 million maintenance-of-effort default by the city, the result would be "a 44-cent increase in the property tax."

Wharton, in speaking to the same point, the imminent phasing-out of the city's financial obligations after completion of the pending merger of city and county schools, had said, "While the city of Memphis will no longer have a legal responsibility to contribute anything to education, it still has moral responsibility, particularly when it comes to early education and the pre-K years." He said that it was the commitment to pre-K that sold him on the county plan.

Others attending the press conference in support of the county tax proposal were Patrice Robinson of the Unified School Board (who called the occasion "a great day"); Chris Caldwell of the school board; Mulroy, Sidney Chism, Melvin Burgess Jr., and Walter Bailey of the county commission; and Myron Lowery and Harold Collins of the city council.

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