In 1980 or so, back when he was a 27-year-old patrolman in the Shelby County Sheriff's Department, John Harvey acquired his first computer and started tinkering. His choice of instruments -- not a business-model IBM but an Apple II -- attested to his maverick streak even then.
"I was on the dark side," quips Harvey. There are those in local government today -- targets of his various ongoing researches into this or that impropriety -- who would consider him on the dark side still, though he has long since joined the cybernetic mainstream and, for the sake of the greater amount of available software, adopted Windows as the operating system for his six computers, all working full-time, often in synch, in investigatory programs of his own devising.
When he started, Harvey was on the front end of the age of computerization in local government, and, he recalls with a grin that is equal parts modest and prideful, "since I owned a computer, I became a guru."
The late Sheriff Jack Owens gave him his first real opportunity in 1986, promoting him to sergeant (Harvey eventually became a lieutenant before his retirement from active duty last year) and putting him in charge of the department's fledgling computer program.
Harvey -- who had already devised an address-checking program that allowed him and his then partner to set records in apprehending fugitives -- promptly set up the machinery and the methodology that created Owens' best-known law-enforcement strategy: the "jump-and-grab" raids that netted arrests of drug dealers and the "caveat emptor" program that bagged their customers.
Owens' jump-and-grab teams were able to cut through red tape and accelerate their arrest rate, using ready-made document packages prepared by Harvey and stocked in every squad car.
As a careerist, Harvey didn't always back the right horse in the all-too-political world of the sheriff's department, however, and, after Owens' dramatic suicide in 1990, on the eve of a planned election bid, Harvey was never quite in sync with the regimes that followed, those of A.C. Gilless and the current sheriff, Mark Luttrell -- though he set up the first version of Luttrell's online warrant-search program.
That program, since modified with a different technology, is typical of the resources which Harvey, now out of government and operating as a full-time consultant, employs for his own research and which are available to lay analysts operating on their own. "Almost everything I use is publicly available," and he suggests that, with the application of common sense and elbow grease, citizens can unravel mysteries and conduct successful inquiries through access to databases available on governmental Web sites -- those of the Assessor, the Trustee, and the Health Department, among other official Shelby County sites -- as well as a burgeoning variety of private sites.
Of course, not everybody is as dogged or as well-prepared as Harvey, who, even while serving as a patrolman two decades ago, dove into all the computer courses he could find at the University of Memphis. That was good prep for the abundance of specialized programs he would later devise on his own.
In particular, nobody has the headstart that Harvey does on the current hot-button issue of electoral technology. His expertise in this field, largely developed to assist his friend Terry Roland's first run for state senator in 2005, has made Harvey's name virtually a household term.
"It stuck to me, and I stuck to it," jests Harvey, whose VotinginMemphis.com Web site is now a standard source for anyone, nationally as well as locally, interested in the nature of election irregularities.
It was Harvey who, in the wake of Republican Roland's narrow special-election defeat by Democrat Ophelia Ford, began checking the Shelby County voter database against the list of participating voters and various address records and discovered some amazing discrepancies -- illegal voting by felons, for example, and improper and even nonexistent addresses.
One such address was a vacant lot, and it turned out to have been attached to the name of a "voter" who was long since deceased. It was discoveries of that kind that led the state Senate to void Ford's election (in a rematch against Roland, she easily prevailed in this year's regular election cycle) and made Harvey a specter to be feared by the Shelby County Election Commission.
"They're all decent people down there, but the bottom line is, they aren't doing the job," says Harvey, who maintains that, among other things, election officials have left voting machines unsupervised and susceptible to being hacked and that the county's official voter list of 650,000 is bloated. The real number of eligible voters is half that, he insists.
Of late, Harvey has shifted his research into the area of financial donations to candidates -- especially sensitive these days of real and suspected influence-peddling through "bagmen" and other conduits. He thinks he's found evidence of hanky-panky by one influential Shelby Countian who has donated to campaign war-chests hither and thither at a volume that his reported income level would seem to make improbable.
"Do you think that's his own money? I don't," says Harvey, who vows to find out what's what. "I wouldn't be surprised if, when I get through putting all this together, some people don't wind up going to jail. I'd be very surprised if they don't." ●