The Color of Corruption 

Governmental crime is an equal-opportunity pastime.

When asked by The Commercial Appeal about the recent arrests of councilmen Rickey Peete and Edmund Ford for accepting bribes to advance a zoning proposal, Rhodes College professor Marcus Pohlmann went far beyond the usual blather about crime being bad and law enforcement being good and articulated out loud something that had been the subject of ample muttering on the street: Were blacks being targeted preferentially?

Oh, NOOOO! came a chorus of response from official sources. Justice is color-blind.

Well, is it?

Oldsters among us may recall that, a year or so before the Watergate burglary brought down President Richard Nixon, the coastal newspapers of record (the Post of Washington and the Times papers of New York and L.A.) were working overtime trying to demonstrate an illegally cozy arrangement between Nixon's reelection committee and the city of San Diego, then under consideration as a convention site.

This was high finance, mind you, and though the papers' heavy hitters did their best to make the millions of dollars' worth of complicated quid pro quos intelligible, finally the public at large yawned, and the issue of presidential corruption was shelved, until ... Bingo! A burglary at the Watergate Hotel. Second-story men. Skullduggery under cover of night. Now we're talking!

The moral of the story? To facilitate the administration of justice, crimes ideally need to be basic and easily understandable to the lay-mind. Clinton got in serious trouble for screwing around and lying about it. "Is" was "is." And that's all there was to it.

Fade to the Enron scandal, in which respected executives eventually were brought to justice for a bogus accounting system that for a decade and more bilked billions from their employees and the public and whole states. Only after the company was forced into bankruptcy and somebody belatedly blew a whistle did Enron's complicated schemes unravel and incur serious prosecutorial interest.

Closer to home is the now-revealed scheme under which a $6 million federal/state grant to build a public transportation facility was converted into a for-profit parking garage to enrich the Memphis Grizzlies' management company.

No doubt that giveaway was part of the bait to attract the NBA team to our city; no doubt the parties -- both in and out of public office -- who approved the ploy understood it as such. The argument can even be made that this particular sleight of hand benefited the greater community.

It's still a deception and, more than arguably, a swindle. And the sum involved is vastly more consequential that the chump change that councilmen Peete and Ford are accused of holding out their hands for. But legal action on the matter will require an exhaustive (and exhausting) search of mounds of records, and the close perusal of endless documents, and deposition upon deposition from the government and civic and entrepreneurial figures involved.

It wasn't a sting, see. No cameras were involved, no pre-arranged ipso facto evidence, no simple -- and visible -- passage of money from hand to hand.

It was otherwise -- and ever will be otherwise -- with the likes of Peete and Ford and, for that matter, the Tennessee Waltz indictees. Nothing sophisticated and layered under level after level of bureaucratic process and contractual nuance. Just, "give me the money, and I'll do what you want done."

Political graft at this level is basically blue-collar crime committed by people wearing white collars. Just as on the chessboard, it's the pawns that get picked off so as to facilitate the trickier -- and more sweeping -- moves of the other, intricately endowed pieces.

By definition, the kind of easy-do, easy-see showcase crime that in the last couple of years has netted so many greedy figures in public life is going to be committed disproportionately by people from more modest upbringings and circumstances. Yes, that means relatively more African Americans.

But you may take it on faith that there is a fairly teeming caste of scofflaws -- disproportionately Caucasian and operating at a loftier, more cautious, yet far more remunerative level -- who are so far undiscovered, or at least unindicted.

It may well be that the infinitely more difficult task of bringing these lawbreakers to justice is the next thing up on the local law-enforcement agenda.

But don't hold your breath.

Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.

Speaking of Politics, corruption

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Blogs

Hungry Memphis

New MemPops Store in Crosstown

News Blog

Planet Fitness Coming Soon to Imperial Lanes Site

Beyond the Arc

Beyond the Arc Podcast #67: Is it time to worry yet?

Politics Beat Blog

Luttrell Weighs in for Governor's Proposed Gas-Tax Increase

News Blog

New Plan, New Task Force Coming for Riverfront

Film/TV/Etc. Blog

Music Video Monday: Alyssa Moore

Tiger Blue

Memphis Tigers: By the Numbers

Tiger Blue

Tigers 70, UCF 65

News Blog

Thousands Join Memphis Women's March

ADVERTISEMENT

More by Jackson Baker

Readers also liked…

  • A Letter to the Memphis City Council

    The council gets an “F” for its performance on the Greensward decision.
    • Mar 10, 2016
  • Pay the Band

    Why we should be supporting proposed national music initiatives in Congress.
    • Aug 10, 2015
  • Detention Deficit

    Exactly seven years ago this week, I wrote a column decrying a proposal by city engineers to turn the Overton Park Greensward into an 18-foot-deep "detention basin" designed to stop flooding in Midtown. The engineers claimed we'd hardly notice the football-field-sized bowl. "Except," I wrote then, "when it rains hard, at which time, users of Overton Park would probably notice a large, 18-foot-deep lake in the Greensward. Or afterward, a large, muddy, trash-filled depression."

    • Mar 10, 2016
ADVERTISEMENT
© 1996-2017

Contemporary Media
460 Tennessee Street, 2nd Floor | Memphis, TN 38103
Visit our other sites: Memphis Magazine | Memphis Parent | Inside Memphis Business
Powered by Foundation