Thursday, February 1, 2007

Conflicts and Common Sense

Strategies for dealing with those pesky conflicts of interest.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 1, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Who needs tedious lectures about ethics and hair-splitting discussions about whether or not it is okay to take a trip, a shrimp appetizer, a $50 meal, a $7 drink, or a $20,000 job from someone who might want your influence? Experience is the best teacher. Here is a summary of strategies employed so far by Memphis and Shelby County elected and appointed officials to deal with the ticklish issue of conflicts of interest.

Hope-You-Don't-Get-Caught Strategy. For those with the gift of deception, the beauty of this strategy is simplicity. Former Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks took bribes for years and got away with it until he was finally caught on tape in Tennessee Waltz. Once he was busted, Hooks offered no excuse, threw himself on the mercy of the court, and got a 26-month prison sentence.

Code-and-Bathroom Strategy. Crude and ineffective, especially if one is being secretly taped. City councilman Rickey Peete called payments "movies" and wrote short notes to lobbyist Joe Cooper to negotiate the amounts to leave in the bathroom. Cooper was secretly working with the FBI. Result: Peete was indicted and is awaiting trial.

Teach-and-Recuse Strategy. City Council chairman Tom Marshall is going to hold sessions on ethics for council members, assuming they can keep a straight face. Marshall, an architect, has a multimillion-dollar contract with the Memphis City Schools. City councilman Dedrick Brittenum, a lawyer, also does business with MCS. Their considerable expertise was all for naught when they recused themselves on annexation votes last year, turning an important issue into a non-issue for lack of leadership. They disenfranchised their constituents and abandoned their colleagues.

Immunization Strategy. When former Shelby County commissioner Bruce Thompson had a potential conflict of interest, he sought a shot of advice from Doctor ... whoops, make that county attorney Brian Kuhn. Thompson was helping a Jackson, Tennessee, building contractor get some Memphis school business. Should he or shouldn't he? Kuhn gave him a clean bill of health but now says he didn't have all the facts. Thompson subsequently decided not to run for reelection. Which brings us to our next strategy ...

Retirement Strategy. Tre Hargett of Bartlett was a rising star in the Tennessee General Assembly and House minority leader for the Republicans. Then his name came up in secret tapes in Operation Tennessee Waltz. An undercover FBI agent posing as an E-Cycle Management executive said, "We did something for Tre," and a crooked school board member from Chattanooga said Hargett "has got a sweetheart deal with Shelby County." Hargett works for Rural Metro, a company that provides ambulance service to more than 80 Tennessee municipalities. Hargett said he did nothing wrong. Like Thompson, he suddenly decided to get out of politics. Now Germantown and other suburbs want out of Rural Metro's deal with Shelby County.

Public-Relations Strategy. Shelby County commissioner Deidre Malone has her own public-relations company. One of her clients was the Jackson contractor who got the Memphis schools contract, thanks in part to her efforts. She did event planning and public relations for $5,000 a month for four months. She too made a visit to Dr. Kuhn for a pre-employment check-up and immunization. Result: a personal PR crisis.

Consulting Strategy. Former state senator John Ford patented this lucrative strategy, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars from health-care companies that did business with the state of Tennessee's TennCare program. His success inspired a flock of less-accomplished disciples, including former senator Roscoe Dixon. The Consulting Strategy has fallen out of favor since Ford was indicted and Dixon was convicted.

TCB Strategy. Former Shelby County Commission chief administrator Calvin Williams said he was just taking care of business when he set up shop at the 100 North Main Building with partner Tim Willis. Commissioners and jurors disagreed.

Wink-Wink Strategy. Full-time public employees aren't supposed to use their positions for political purposes. Democratic Party activist Gale Jones Carson went from executive assistant to Mayor Willie Herenton to corporate spokesman for Memphis Light, Gas & Water for $126,000 a year. Media attention has focused on her pension, but the challenge for Carson will be staying out of politics while she's on the job at MLGW during a city election year. In the age of cell phones and e-mails, that's impossible.

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