Thursday, August 30, 2007

John Ford: 66 Months

The biggest fish in Tennessee Waltz gets the biggest sentence.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 30, 2007 at 4:00 AM

U.S. district judge Daniel Breen sentenced John Ford Tuesday to 66 months in prison, which means the senator, now 65, will be at least 71 when he is a free man.

Harsh as it was, things could have been worse. In fact, they could still get worse for Ford, who faces separate federal charges in Nashville and has a November 6th trial date. But Ford and his friends and family appear to have helped his cause somewhat with an emotional appeal for leniency on Monday, day one of a rare two-day sentencing hearing.

Breen said the sentencing guideline range for Ford's bribery conviction was 78 to 97 months. The judge said Ford "used and abused" his power. He was "a person of greed and avarice but also a person who assisted others." His conduct "sends a very unfortunate message to those persons who were represented by Mr. Ford," especially young people. The damning videotapes "reflect an arrogance that belies his concern for his constituents." The whole thing was "a tragedy on many levels."

Adding up all of that, and using his own judicial discretion, Breen arrived at 66 months, or slightly more than the sentence another federal judge gave Tennessee Waltz defendant Roscoe Dixon. Ford was stoic in the courtroom but appeared tearful on the elevator as he left the courthouse with his family.

John Ford was one-of-a-kind as a politician and public figure for more than 30 years, and his sentencing was no exception. It took seven hours over two days in a packed courtroom and appeared to leave Ford and members of his family emotionally drained. He gave a good account of himself and revealed a side rarely seen by reporters and most members of the public. Speaking to Breen in a soft voice that sometimes cracked, Ford asked for leniency for himself and his dependent children and said he was "ashamed" of the way he behaved on the secretly recorded tapes that convicted him.

"During the trial I was completely ashamed of myself, just completely ashamed of myself," he said of the hours of tapes on which he swore, bragged, partied, threatened to shoot people, and took cash bribes from an undercover FBI agent. A very different Ford was on display in court this week.

The two years since the Tennessee Waltz indictments were announced in 2005 "have been the most difficult of my entire life," he said, hesitating as he chose his words. "I don't know how I have been able to sustain myself."

He told Breen, "I accept the jury verdict, and I take full, total, and complete responsibility for my actions." He apologized to the court, his family and friends, his constituents, "and particularly to my children."

Thirteen friends and family members took the witness stand and described him as a good father of 12 children, a supportive brother, and a "go-to" legislator for 31 years.

If Ford's own speech was deficient in some way it was perhaps too honest. He simply could not bring himself to confess a level of remorse he clearly does not feel for a conviction based on a sting operation that, however much the government protests, likely targeted him.

"Your honor, the worst thing about me is I talk too much," Ford said. He added that his mistake was "I trusted everybody, but I should have known better. You can't trust everybody." One of the spectators in the courtroom was "L.C. McNeil," the jive-talking "businessman" who made the ten $5,000 undercover payments to Ford.

Ford said that prior to Tennessee Waltz he had never been offered a bribe and never approached anyone for a payment for his legislative services. "Never ever again will I make these kind of mistakes," he said.

That was too much for prosecutor Tim DiScenza. To the very end, he bored in on Ford as a crooked lawmaker whose only sincere regret was getting caught and convicted.

"We don't hear about the betrayed trust of the people that voted for him or the trust of the young legislators who may have looked up to him as a role model," he said.

DiScenza, who has a perfect conviction record in Tennessee Waltz, scoffed at the current and former lawmakers and public officials — Alvin King, Ulysses Jones, and Osbie Howard — who spoke on Ford's behalf and blamed his problems on big talk.

"These legislators obviously don't get it," he said.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

"Improvident Borrower"

How a Memphis home loan staggered Wall Street and the global economy.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 23, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Julia Greer doesn't know George Will and doesn't watch the Sunday-morning news talk shows. But Will, the bow-tied conservative television pundit, author, and columnist, had some harsh words for people like Mrs. Greer last week.

Greer, 67, is one of millions of Americans who took out a home loan they can't repay. The former grill cook at Baptist Hospital for 35 years lives on Social Security payments of $814 a month. In April, she took out a $50,000 loan to fix up a house in Whitehaven where she plans to care for a cousin who is handicapped from a stroke.

Greer can't make the monthly payments on the loan, which carries an interest rate of 15 percent and is due in full in September, six months after the loan was made. That's called a balloon note in the trade.

As Will wrote in a column published in The Commercial Appeal and other newspapers last week, "Every improvident loan requires an improvident borrower to seek and accept it. Furthermore, when there is no penalty for folly ... folly proliferates." By his lights, Julia Greer is the source of her own problem. She borrowed more than she could repay. The stock market took a nasty tumble, and investors from China to Memphis felt the pain because of the improvidence of people like Julia Greer.

But improvidence sometimes has a little help.

Fixing up the house was Greer's daughter Linda's idea. A cousin owned the house for several years, and it was paid for but in need of repairs. It is 54 years old and appraised at $96,200. The Greers say the plan was that the cousin would deed the house to Julia Greer so she could get it fixed up, move in, and share living expenses.

Greer tried to get a home-improvement loan from the Teachers Credit Union, First Citizens, and Sun Trust Bank but was turned down for insufficient credit history. A friend recommended she try Home Realty Company and Home Financial in Memphis.

In April, Julia Greer and the cousin met with a closing attorney. The closing costs were $13,000, including a 5 percent "loan origination fee" and another 5 percent "loan discount fee." On top of that, documents show that Greer was obligated to pay another $2,000 to Home Financial in six months even if she made the balloon payment. The fee would be "waived" if she took out a new loan. Home Realty would keep the balance of the loan, $37,000, in escrow and reimburse Greer for improvements after they were made, if she provided receipts.

When Linda Greer read the closing papers, she thought her mother had been taken advantage of, and she tried to cancel the loan.

"They told me in order to rescind it, I would have to pay the closing amount of $13,000 within 24 hours," Linda Greer said.

Charles E. Moore of Home Realty said the loan was proper. The closing costs, he said, included payment of back taxes that were due on the property. He was under the impression that Mrs. Greer was going to resell the house after fixing it up and never intended to live in it. The workers she hired, he said, "didn't have her best interests at heart" so he hired his own workmen to take over.

Moore and the Greers disagree about how much she was supposed to pay each month, but they agree that Julia Greer faced foreclosure unless she got a new loan.

"You can't stay if you don't pay," Moore said.

As it now stands, roughly $19,000 worth of work has been done, and the house is unoccupied. Julia Greer lives in an apartment downtown. Linda said her mother is "scared to death" of losing the house.

Home Realty tried to get Julia Greer to sign for a new loan for $63,000 to pay off the old one. The documents include an apparently forged signature of Julia Greer and list her monthly income as $2,800 a month from a nonexistent drapery business. Linda Greer says her mother "can't even sew a button."

Moore said he doesn't know how that information got in the loan documents.

The Greers contacted Memphis Legal Services and attorney Webb Brewer, who plans to file a lawsuit against Home Realty. Brewer helped write Tennessee's 2006 Anti-Predatory Lending legislation after seeing scores of working poor people hoodwinked by salesmen peddling subprime loans, debt consolidation loans, and fix-up loans.

"Subprime lending is like a petri dish for predatory lending," Brewer said.

Or for folly and improvidence. Take your pick.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Day One at Southwind

As workmen sizzle, the county's newest high school opens.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 16, 2007 at 4:00 AM

It was a record 104 degrees when the first day of the first semester of the first year of classes at Southwind High School ended at 2 p.m. on Monday, but if you were standing on the freshly paved black asphalt parking lot it felt more like 120.

Another headline to put away in the time capsule for Memphis and Shelby County's newest high school, to go along with:

The school that opened the summer easy credit for housing dried up ... that was singled out by a federal judge's desegregation order for being racially unbalanced before it even opened ... that is only half finished, with students on one side and construction workers and heavy equipment and piles of building materials on the other ... whose upperclassmen are sophomores and whose entire student body of 1,000 or so is new.

And the school that sprawl built. They're called the Jaguars, but consideration should have been given to Roadrunners or Highwaymen. In the 1980s and 1990s, Shelby County and the state of Tennessee had a case of road fever and criss-crossed the area north of Mississippi and south of Poplar Avenue with six-lane connectors like Raines, Shelby Drive, Hack's Cross, and Winchester and tied them all together with a superhighway, Nonconnah Parkway, now called Bill Morris Parkway in honor of the county mayor during that time.

The school and the neighborhoods around it are officially unincorporated. The area isn't Germantown, although Germantown Road lies to the west and many of the students went to Germantown High School last year. It isn't Memphis, unless Memphis acts to annex it, as the planning department and the City Council threatened to do last year. And it isn't Collierville, which is located to the east a couple of interchanges away.

It isn't really Southwind either. Southwind is the name of the PGA golf course, office park, and gated neighborhood less than a mile to the north. That Southwind was built in 1988 and drove the construction of the highway that was later extended to Collierville. The mansions around the golf course are outside the Southwind High School attendance zone, and the teenagers who live in them are not likely to attend public school in any event.

The high school is at the intersection of Hack's Cross and Shelby Drive. The traffic problems that some people predicted didn't happen, at least not on Day One. Two uniformed women in bright green vests stopped cars on Shelby Drive so children could cross the street, and sheriff's department squad cars blocked the entrance off Hack's Cross.

Southwind High sits on 62 acres, which the county bought for slightly more than $5 million and then proceeded to cut down every tree in sight. We super-size our schools these days, providing students with more elbow room and playing fields than their parents and grandparents could have imagined. Southwind's site would accommodate Snowden, Central, B.T. Washington, Hillcrest, Southside, and Melrose put together.

The principal at Southwind High, Linda Patterson, was at Germantown High School last year and has more than 30 years experience. County schools spokesman Mike Tebbe is confident that she will do a good job. Her three sons were or are student athletes at Harvard, Northwestern, and the University of Memphis. Patterson was directing traffic in the hallway and understandably too busy for an interview when I saw her Monday outside the office, an open space where several students and parents were waiting for help and the phones went unanswered.

Construction is supposed to be finished next July. The school will add a grade a year for two years. There seems to be no shortage of students. Shelby Drive and Hack's Cross are lined with subdivisions and signs saying "New Homes," "No City Taxes," "$20,000 Builder Bonus," "$0 Move-In," and "Free Washer/Dryer/Refrigerator."

If there is a Hickory Hill-style housing collapse brewing, I couldn't see it when I drove through 20-year-old subdivisions like Richwood and the new ones adjacent to the school. The overwhelming majority of the homes and yards looked like the very model of neat and tidy suburbia. If this is "unincorporated," then some of us who live a lot closer to Memphis City Hall should be so lucky.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Something's Gotta Give

Why 2007 looks like the Year of the Tipping Point for Memphis.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 9, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Economists are said to have predicted 10 of the last three recessions. Not to be outdone, newspaper columnists can predict 10 of the next three tipping points in Memphis.

The mayoral election: So many Herenton years, so little Herenton enthusiasm. But — seemingly — so little enthusiasm for the challengers, too. Sure, it's risky to come out against an incumbent mayor, but it isn't exactly signing up for a tour of Baghdad. If snakes need cover, then let them imitate the donor list for the mayor's annual Christmas party. Sign on with Morris/Chumney/Willingham/whoever with 40 of your friends. If the mayor looks at you funny next time you need a favor, explain that your secretary did it.

The end of Tennessee Waltz: John Ford going to prison. Who'd have thought it in 2003, when he and Ward Crutchfield and Roscoe Dixon were riding high in Nashville? And who'd have thought that 30 months after the first indictments, and with all these politicos copping pleas, that Joe Cooper would be the only one from the supply side to get indicted? If the other shoe doesn't fall this year, it ain't dropping.

Crime: A crime wave, a no-deals policy, and a police department that's pretty good at catching crooks add up to an overcrowded jail. Memphis can't lock up all the bad guys and hold them forever. They get out more hardened and desperate than before. A new jail and privatization are in our future.

A new superintendent: Carol Johnson is the lamest of lame ducks for one more week. Her farewell meeting should be open-mic night. Why are you leaving? Regrets? Who else should go? No platitudes allowed on this exit exam or else her last paycheck gets sent by mistake to the MLGW customer service center.

State takeover of 17 city schools: No more bluffing. So what is a state appointee going to do that Memphis City Schools didn't or wouldn't do?

New schools: Manassas High School will open in an inner-city black neighborhood that has lost most of its population, and Southwind High School will open in a suburban black neighborhood that has gained population. Let's see some real attendance numbers 30 days after the openings.

Beale Street Landing: Is the boat dock the last or just the latest downtown big thing? Its backers should have their names engraved on a bronze plaque that says, "This was our idea of the best way to spend $29 million on park improvements."

Annexation: Will a lame-duck City Council do what it wouldn't do a year ago and take in the reluctant residents of southeastern Shelby County while cutting out upscale homeowners in Southwind and Windyke? Extra city taxes will hit low-income mortgage holders at the peak of the sub-prime squeeze.

Two "pro" basketball teams: That's one too many for this town. Basketball is in the news every day and it isn't even football season for another month. The Memphis Grizzlies have shaken up their lineup and are shooting for the playoffs. The Memphis NBA Development Team, aka the Memphis Tigers, are a likely preseason number one. Both aim to boost their season-ticket sales. Someone's going to be very disappointed.

The Pyramid and Bass Pro: This "engagement" is so stale it's embarrassing to write about it. No more non-binding letters of intent. A wedding this year or tear it down.

The downtown revival: Saying these two words should be a misdemeanor punishable by a $50 fine as long as there are vacancies on every corner at Union and Main.

The Fairgrounds: The pitch for a new stadium hasn't caught fire. Addition by subtraction of the junk around the Liberty Bowl and a realistic report on the cost of handicapped seats will expose it as a pipe dream.

Shelby County schools: School board member David Pickler and federal judge Bernice Donald could not be further apart. If Donald is right, then county schools will have to be paired and/or attendance lines redrawn. If Pickler is right, then federal courts are out of the school desegregation business.

A C is not the answer: He's not running for city mayor. He can't run for county mayor again because of term limits. Backers of Mr. Agreeable as the stop-gap Answer To Everything are finally forced to look for other solutions.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

A "Momentous" Decision

Judge Bernice Donald says county schools should not be racially identifiable.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 2, 2007 at 4:00 AM

The most powerful force in the universe is not gravity, earthquakes, or tsunamis. It is American parents bent on getting their children into the school of their choice.

This force — abetted in Greater Memphis by cars and roads, separate city and county school systems, private schools, and the proximity of Mississippi schools — is the reason why the latest federal court desegregation order on Shelby County schools is doomed to fail.

To paraphrase a famous quotation, U.S. district judge Bernice Donald has made her ruling. Now let's see her make it stick.

At least Donald acknowledged the elephant in the living room: The new Southwind High School between Germantown and Collierville will be, if not this year then next year or the year after that, a virtually all-black high school. As her ruling says, it is expected to have an 88 percent or higher black enrollment on the day it opens this month.

Overall, the Shelby County school system is 34 percent black. There is some nuance and a lot of historical context in Donald's 62-page order, but the gist of it is that racially identifiable schools are a no-no in the system, and individual schools should more closely mirror the system demographics, plus or minus 15 percent, in both their student body and their faculty.

Courts can rule all they want about public schools, and for a year or two they can dictate the demographics of schools. But parents and politicians are free agents. The people's court is going to challenge and eventually overrule the federal court. This is especially true in Memphis when a suburban school starts out as a county school and becomes a city school via annexation. In 1980, Shelby County built Kirby High School. It was majority white. Memphis took it over in 2000. Last year, it was 1 percent white. In 2000, Memphis and Shelby County jointly opened Cordova High School, which is now a city school. Its white enrollment declined to 41 percent in 2006-'07, from 60 percent in 2004-'05.

Southwind High School is in the Memphis reserve area. Memphis School Board members approved the site and will eventually take it over. Last year, the Memphis City Council and the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development did everything but pull the trigger on the so-called southeast annexation. It failed mainly because council members Tom Marshall and Dedrick Brittenum recused themselves.

Marshall was the architect of the annexation plan. He is still on the council until the end of this year. He is also chairman. He told the Flyer this week he expects the council to take up annexation after the October election. If and when it does, he says this time he will vote for it.

If Memphis annexes Southwind High and selective (i.e., not-gated) nearby neighborhoods — even if it delays the effective date for a few years — then the county school system has to recalculate its racial math. Hundreds of black students and a sprinkling of white students will shift from the county system to the city system.

History suggests that the harder Donald pushes to eliminate racially identifiable schools, the more "churn" she will produce from the people's court. In 1971, another Memphis federal judge ordered forced busing to desegregate schools. Within three years, nearly 30,000 white students left the system and Memphis had the largest private-school population in the country. Today, more than 95 percent of the 115,000 MCS students attend racially identifiable schools because there are fewer than 9,000 whites in the system.

In her ruling, Donald said the county school district "does not yet merit a passing grade," and she called the school board's compliance track record "decidedly mixed."

In some ways, her historical analysis is generous. She could have pointed out (but did not) that the county board, with no district seats, was all-white until a couple of years ago and that its former superintendent allowed a single real estate developer, Jackie Welch, to pick most of the school sites. In other respects, however, her ruling is naive. It ignores the reality of school choice broadly defined to include magnet schools, separate city and county school systems, private schools, and DeSoto County schools. In the long run, there is nothing that Donald or any federal judge can do to eliminate racially identifiable schools.

The ruling overlooks something else. The Shelby County schools have grown from black flight as well as white flight. In 1987, the system was only 14 percent black compared to 34 percent today. The neighborhoods in the southeast annexation area are primarily middle class. Residents include former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout.

Southwind High School is mentioned only once in the ruling, so it's impossible to say how much it weighed on Donald's decision. Appointed by Bill Clinton in 1996, she is the lone black judge on the federal bench in Memphis. Like her judicial colleagues, Donald, a native of DeSoto County and graduate of the University of Memphis, does not grant interviews about pending matters and lets her rulings speak for themselves. What can be said, however, is that Southwind High is a far cry from the dilapidated schools with no air-conditioning and third-hand textbooks of the 1960s and '70s — a period the ruling describes in great detail, for whatever reason.

Most parents will probably skip the history, arithmetic, and the 62 pages and get to the bottom line: What does it mean for my house, my neighborhood, or my kid?

Donald's order calls for a special master — a "neutral expert" in desegregation issues — to be picked within 30 days. The county school board is supposed to achieve full compliance, as determined by Donald and the special master, by 2012. Apparently, Southwind High School will be allowed to open this month as a "racially identifiable"county school that doesn't meet the county guidelines. After this year, it's anyone's guess.

With positive leadership and a focus on excellence instead of race, Southwind High has a chance to be a very good school. Instead, sadly, it has already been called a dumping ground by one neighborhood leader.

Donald writes about "the momentous, irreversible nature of this court's pending decision." But it could be momentous in a different way than she thinks.

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