Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Lee Keeps Job, As City Council Circus Continues

Ford Waves Bible; Lee Refuses to answer direct questions from Belz.

Posted By on Tue, Mar 20, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Embattled Memphis Light, Gas and Water president Joseph Lee appeared before the City Council today — against the advice of his attorney Robert Spence — to answer the council’s questions of his conduct of MLGW policy and procedure.

Lee had declined to be interviewed as part of the outside investigation of MLGW conducted during the past two weeks. The City Attorney's office contracted Saul Belz to conduct the investigation of MLGW policies and procedures, and the council invited Belz to question Lee.

Spence explained that Lee would answer council members’ questions because Lee’s “ethics [and] his integrity have been questioned. And by questioning his integrity, you question his good name. He is here to defend his good name.”

An impassioned Lee addressed the council, declaring “I want it to be clearly, convincingly, and plainly understood that I have not received a benefit, gift, or anything of value from any council member, including Edmund Ford at any time… I did not participate in any criminal or illegal activity.”

Lee claimed that he had tried to bring a “level of compassion” to his work at MLGW. He brought a file folder bulging with his MLGW customer correspondence to illustrate. “I said that Edmund Ford was treated differently, and he was. But so were all of these customers,” Lee said.

“I have never instructed a staff person to cut [anyone] off. I say ‘work with the customer,’” he added.

Councilman Joe Brown called the investigation “tainted,” saying, “if it’s about policy, let’s talk about policy. All I can see is Edmund Ford. Is this about Edmund Ford, or is this about policy?”

Lee’s refusal to answer questions directly from Belz, who was sitting directly across from him, forced Belz to pose his questions through councilman Tom Marshall. Marshall, then, asked Belz what Belz would have asked Lee. Marshall posed the questions to Lee as laughter rippled through the audience.

Marshall urged Lee to speak with Belz directly, assuring Lee that “there are a lot of people out there that don’t necessarily think you’re guilty of much.”

Ford gestured wildly throughout the proceeding, and at times held a Bible aloft.

Lee defended himself variously, denying awareness of certain MLGW policies, claiming to run the utility with compassion toward its customers, and even citing the 17,800 accounts in arrears as evidence of this. Lee attributed the company’s handling of Ford’s account to staff recommendations that he accepted.

The Belz report, however, showed a more hands-on approach to the Ford account.

Marshall explained, “We couldn’t find any more instances where you directed an account other than that of councilman Edmund Ford’s, to be retained, and not cut off.”

Councilwoman Carol Chumney, the council’s MLGW committee chairperson, banged the gavel throughout the rowdy meeting, and demanded order from her fellow councilmen and the audience.

The fun had barely started. Ford took the floor, and launched into a lengthy tirade. He claimed that his kindness to his constituents had caused him this trouble. “Maybe that’s my problem,” he said. “I help people.”

Ford went on to claim that the well-publicized delinquent MLGW account in his name is for a property that he does not own. He accused Marshall of initiating the inquiry for personal reasons. “I want [Marshall] to stop it today, or I will write a letter asking [him] to step down [as City Council chairman.]”

Ford turned to Marshall and said, “I really want to be your friend.”

Brown called the MLGW shake-up a “coup.” He followed that up saying that those council members behind it could never muster the eleven (out of thirteen) member votes needed to oust Lee. Brown told Lee directly, “You don’t have to worry about being replaced by this body.”

Belz had presented the council members with a written report of his findings at 10 a.m. The council referred to the document throughout their questioning of Lee.

Councilman Jack Sammons noted an account record included in the report of a MLGW employee who requested an extension on his utility bill until the ensuing payday. The employee explained that his wife was recovering from a brain tumor. MLGW ordered a cutoff.

Sammons asked Lee how he reconciled cutoffs of customers experiencing hardships while allowing Ford’s account to go unpaid indefinitely without cutoff.

Lee claimed not to be fully versed in the utility’s cutoff policies.

Chumney circulated copies of Lee’s resignation to the council members as the meeting closed, and stated that she will move for the council to accept Lee’s resignation at the April 3rd council meeting.

Citizens attending the meeting expressed a range of opinions regarding the matter. “There’s nothing but a bunch of thugs running this place,” remarked a man, “why do you think Toyota didn’t come here?”

Another was more put out with Ford’s lack of discretion. “Edmund abused his privileges,” he said. “It’s like in college when you had the hook-up at the chicken place — you don’t go in for 20 pieces a day.”

—Preston Lauterbach


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