Thursday, February 13, 2003

POLITICS: No Love Lost

Shelby County Commissioners Loeffel and Willingham are having a problem.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 13, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Shelby County Commissioners Marilyn Loeffel, a second-termer, and John Willingham, a first-termer, were never exactly stablemates, but as fellow Republicans and as colleagues on the commission their relations were always considered satisfactory.

Until, that is, the events of last December when then commission administrator Calvin Williams became ensnared in a variety of charges, including conflict-of-interest issues and other matters, that would eventually lead to his resignation last month under pressure.

But the same pressure that brought Williams down would have serious consequences for some of the commissioners themselves -- notably Loeffel, whose initial vote not to fire the administrator (for reasons of Christian compassion, she said at the time) would bring retribution her way in the form of an ouster complaint.

That complaint -- brought by Dr. Howard Entman, a local physician -- is being weighed for possible action in the office of the Davidson County District Attorney General’s office, where it was referred by Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, who recused himself. The complaint cites Loeffel’s acknowledgement that Williams’ solicitation of county business for his temporary-employment agency probably violated the letter of the Shelby County charter.

Loeffel has since been vexed by published articles and accusations suggesting that for years she high-pressured then Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout and then county corrections director, now Sheriff, Mark Luttrell, to get employment, a series of salary increases, and favorable working conditions for her husband Mark Loeffel.

(Luttrell, while attending the local Republicans’ annual Lincoln Day Dinner on Sunday, confided that he thought the Loeffels had been “ingrates” about such concessions, admittedly fewer and more limited than were asked, that in the end were extended to Mark Loeffel.)

Through it all, the Entman complaint has continued to rankle Loeffel. And at some point she began to blame Willingham, an acquaintance of Entman’s, with instigating it. That much both Loeffel and Willingham agree on, but, while Willingham says there was no justice to the accusation (“Everybody knows nobody else can tell Howard what to do,” he says), Loeffel continues to hold her colleague responsible (“[Commission] staff members have told me he bragged to them that his fingerprints were all over that complaint”).

There followed an incident in which Willingham, responding to what he saw as overt hostility on Loeffel’s part, put his hands on her shoulders -- in a caring, avuncular manner, as he describes it -- and asked her what was wrong. Loeffel, who remembers the incident as one in which Willingham “got in my face,” told him to take his hands off. Both principals agree that she then said, “Don’t you ever touch me again!”

Willingham, now recovering from emergency surgery for a heart condition he believes was brought on by stress, says he was subsequently told that Loeffel had threatened to file a sexual harassment complaint against him. At least one other commissioner reports hearing that Loeffel nursed such an intention. She adamantly denies it, and a check with the county attorney’s office and the county Equal Opportunity Office failed to turn up evidence of any such complaint.

Both Loeffel and Willingham agree, however, that her get-well card, sent to Willingham’s residence during his recent convalescence, was returned to her unopened. “I was attempting to return a blessing for his insults,” she maintains. Willingham says that Loeffel has attempted to portray him in a false light and that he saw the gesture as a form of hypocrisy similar to Loeffel’s invoking Christianity as a reason for her vote on Williams’ behalf.

Loeffel says she was merely being faithful to the dictates of her religion in voting, at the commission’s pre-Christmas session, to give Williams a “second chance.” She recalls, “I said at the time that one act of mercy was called for but that mercy would run out of there were other incidents [involving Williams].” (Amid a welter of accumulating questions about Williams’ conduct, the commission was prepared to vote with virtual unanimity against retaining him in January, a fact which prompted his pre-emptive resignation.)

Loeffel blames political considerations for the complaint against her. “Why weren’t the other six targeted?” she says, alluding to the fact that at the December meeting there were seven votes in all to refrain from purgative action against Williams. She says that prior attempts were made by various individuals -- amounting to a form of “blackmail” -- aimed at discouraging her vote.

Over the last several weeks, various Republicans -- from the rank-and-file level on up -- have wondered out loud if Loeffel, who often votes with current commission chairman Walter Bailey, a Democrat, and, as chairman pro tem, is in line to succeed him, hasn’t become too cozy with the body’s six Democrats.

“My Republican record is impeccable, but I vote my convictions,” Loeffel maintains.

Ironically, both Loeffel and Willingham have found themselves often parting company with their Republican colleagues on a variety of matters, mainly fiscal in nature. Loeffel said she recently voted to reconsider an expenditure on renovations to to the commission offices “at the request of a colleague,” while Willingham parted company with the GOP majority on the matter of taxpayer-funded laptops.

During a debate on the matter, Willingham leaned over and asked Democratic colleague Julian Bolton, “Don’t those characters realize the election is over?” as Republicans David Lillard, Joyce Avery, and Bruce Thompson, over on the other side of commission’s semi-circular table, were making the case against the expenditure.

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