Friday, February 15, 2008

Lunati Gets 18-Month Sentence

Posted on Fri, Feb 15, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Ralph Lunati, whose Platinum Plus and Tunica Cabaret were busted for live sex shows, was sentenced to 18 months in prison Friday.

U.S. District Judge Samuel H. Mays accepted a plea agreement reached earlier by attorneys for Lunati and federal prosecutors. Under the agreement, Lunati, 62, could have gone to trial if Mays had rejected the proposed 18-month sentence. The maximum sentence under federal guidelines was five years.

Lunati will also forfeit $207,000 and the two clubs, including the real estate.

In 2005 and 2006, undercover officers observed women having sex with each other on stage. The "two girl" show became the signature of the clubs, Mays said, and it was that illegal conduct, which was deemed to be prostitution, which led to the federal indictment. Lunati would get $5 from each ATM transaction and 10 percent each time a customer used a credit card to get cash from the bar.

He became wealthy enough to afford courtside seats at Memphis Grizzlies games. The girls paid to work at the clubs and earned "tips" or cash from customers who watched them having oral sex on stage.

Mays said it was not the clubs themselves but the conduct that was illegal. Memphis has struggled to regulate strip clubs for years. In the process, it earned a reputation for having the most wide-open clubs in America, according to one consultant's report.

Federal and state prosecutors say the clubs are havens for drugs and other crimes as well as prostitution.

-- John Branston

Thursday, February 14, 2008

No Valentine for Kathryn Bowers

Posted By on Thu, Feb 14, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Kathryn Bowers, a diminutive political "heavy hitter" who defied Tennessee Waltz prosecutors for more than two years before pleading guilty to bribery, was sentenced Thursday to 16 months in prison.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Breen said "the very serious and very damaging nature of the offenses" weighed on his decision.

"It provides the wrong message for other individuals, particularly young people," he said.

Bowers spoke for about a minute on her own behalf and said "I ask forgiveness for my bad decision."

Bowers, 64, was indicted on May 26, 2005, along with state lawmakers John Ford, Roscoe Dixon, Ward Crutchfield, Chris Newton and others. She pleaded guilty on July 16, 2007 to one count of bribery.

Prior to that, Bowers maintained her innocence, organized supporters, and continued to serve in the Senate for a year after her indictment. But she faced an uphill battle after Dixon went to trial in 2006 and was convicted and sentenced to 63 months in prison.

Her name and even her recorded voice were so prominent on audio tapes played for the jury and in courtroom testimony that it almost seemed at times as if she was on trial along with Dixon.

The government's star witness, former Dixon aide Barry Myers, was secretly taped saying he had made payoffs to Dixon, Bowers, and others for years. On one tape, Myers told the undercover FBI agent "you can, shit, can just put money in Kathryn's hands, 'cause I think she's, she's real, she's getting comfortable with you."

But Bowers was apparently more careful than Dixon about taking money. An undercover FBI agent would give money to confidential informant Tim Willis who would give it to Myers who in turn gave it to Bowers. It's unclear if FBI agents ever caught her taking cash on videotape, as they did Dixon and Ford.

On another tape, Myers tells the agent, "The big juice is Lois DeBerry, John Ford, Roscoe, and Kathryn Bowers. That's the, them you heavy hitters right there."

The legislative heavy hitter was a short, feisty red-haired woman who was praised by character witnesses for her work on family law, literacy, and inner-city youth. She declined to resign her seat while under indictment, but in 2006 announced that she would not seek reelection because of what she called health issues. She pleaded guilty after another heavy hitter with deeper pockets, John Ford, was convicted at trial. She was given credit for acceptance of responsibility by the government.

Bowers graduated from Hamilton High School in Memphis and studied journalism for two years at the University of Memphis. She worked her way to prominence in politics in Memphis and Nashville, where she "isted her occupation as "contractor consultant” in the Tennessee Blue Book and such honors as former chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party Executive Committee. She served five terms as a state representative and was maneuvering to increase her political power and advance her career in the Senate at the same time the FBI was preparing to spring the trap in Tennessee Waltz. She was sworn in as a state senator on May 16, 2005, just 10 days before she was indicted.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Talkin' 'Bout the Hotties

Posted By on Wed, Feb 13, 2008 at 4:00 AM

The Flyer's fourth annual Hotties issue hits the streets today, but the first-ever Hotties party is tonight from 7-9 p.m. at the Cove.

Have a burning question about how the Flyer finds its hotties or picks its hotties? Click the audio player below to listen to editor Mary Cashiola talk about how the issue comes together. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Whalum Calls for Immediate Memphis Schools Shutdown

Posted By on Wed, Feb 13, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Saying he represents more people than voted for Mayor Willie Herenton, Memphis school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. called for all schools to be immediately closed in the wake of a shooting at Mitchell High School on Monday.

"Memphis City Schools needs to be shut down," he said at a press conference at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church where he is pastor.

Questioned by reporters, he said, "I mean every school, shut down."

Whalum, an at-large board member, said metal detectors should immediately be put in use at "every school, every day."

He took only about five minutes or less of questions, and reporters were unable to get details of his sweeping statements.

"I don’t care where they go, I just don't want them in school getting shot to death," he said when asked if children were not safer at school than anywhere else.

Whalum was not joined by any other board members. On Tuesday, board member Tomeka Hart held a press conference about school violence and was joined by some of her colleagues. Whalum said "my heart sank when I saw a smiling Tomeka Hart" saying that despite its problems the city schools are reasonably safe for their more than 100,000 customers.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Willie Herenton is scheduled to hold a press conference at City Hall on school violence. This story will be updated.

Herenton Chimes In On School Violence

Posted By on Wed, Feb 13, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Airports with professional screeners and multiple walk-through metal detectors struggle to get hundreds of people through them before their flights leave. Now Memphis schools may be asked to get thousands of students through them before the tardy bell rings.

Holding the third press conference in Memphis on school violence in less than 24 hours, Mayor Willie Herenton came out for more metal detectors for more schools Wednesday. But he sidestepped questions about whether they would be used every day in every city high school and middle school as well as the staggering logistical difficulties of doing that.

"It is unacceptable to say we cannot afford to make schools safe," Herenton said at an afternoon press conference at City Hall. He was flanked by Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin and Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell, who said their forces will cooperate to reduce gang activity and violence in the schools in the wake of Monday's shooting of a Mitchell High School student by another student.

Herenton said he was ending the debate over whether the city could afford to make schools safe. But given his statement a moment earlier that violence in schools is a national problem, and his oft-stated reminder that crime can be reduced but not eliminated, it was unclear what that means. He seemed to be trying to end or preempt a turf war with the school board by saying that public safety is a city and police function while education is a school board function.

Earlier Wednesday, school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. held his own press conference at his church, Olivet Baptist Church. Saying he represents more people than voted for Herenton last October, Whalum called for all schools to be immediately closed until metal detectors can be put in use at "every school every day."

Memphis City Schools needs to be shut down," said Whalum, an at-large board member. He took only about five minutes or less of questions, and reporters were unable to get details of his sweeping statements.

I don't care where they go, I just don't want them in school getting shot to death," he said when asked if children were not safer at school than anywhere else.

Neither Herenton nor Whalum were joined by any other school board members. On Tuesday, board members and interim superintendent Dan Ward held a press conference, with Whalum the only absence. Board member Tomeka Hart got most of the television camera time with an appeal for calm and a measured response to the shooting.

Whalum said "my heart sank when I saw a smiling Tomeka Hart" saying that despite its problems the city schools are reasonably safe for their more than 100,000 customers.

Herenton said he will offer more specifics next week. On Wednesday, he called for redeploying 67 Memphis police officers to Memphis schools, with the focus on 25 high schools and 7 middle schools. He also called for purchasing 65 walk-through metal detectors, 210 hand-held detectors, and allocating $500,000 for security equipment.

He said former board member Sara Lewis, who now holds a full-time position in the Herenton administration, will begin leading parenting sessions at community centers and libraries.

Without naming names, Herenton said "we have a problem at the school level" with principals who don't communicate with the police department and officers. Such disputes often stem from the issue of discipline and overall responsibility for school operation and safety. Godwin said police will step up their patrols of schools (which he called "sacred cows)" before, during, and after school hours.

Even if metal detectors are put in place, they will not prevent shootings on school grounds outside the building, or with guns passed through windows, guns that get inside due to metal detector or operator failure, and guns in elementary schools or combined elementary and middle schools such as Snowden.

Compounding the potential problem, hundreds of students arriving at the same time would have to be funneled through a single entrance, where impatience, frustration, pushing and shoving could lead to more incidents. Some city high schools have more than 2,000 students. And the symbolism of schools and metal detectors will undoubtedly make some parents with means and wherewithal decide that worse has come to worst and to abandon MCS for county and private schools.

Herenton is a former MCS superintendent. In his 16 years as mayor, he has for the most part avoided second-guessing his successors. He was apparently driven to act this week by a combination of the most recent shooting, other shootings, the two earlier press conferences, and a previously announced "plan" to join with Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton to speak with Gov. Phil Bredesen about school funding.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

FEMA Opens Memphis Office; Disaster Funds Already Flowing to TN

Posted By on Sun, Feb 10, 2008 at 4:00 AM

FEMA issued the following information Sunday night: Five days after a series of strong storms swept through Tennessee, federal, state and local response and recovery officials continue efforts to assist residents and communities. Following is a summary of information disaster survivors need to know to apply for state and federal assistance following the severe storms, tornadoes and flooding that hit the state February 5 and 6:

Through Saturday, Feb. 9, 601 storm survivors have applied for federal and state disaster assistance by calling the FEMA tele-registration number.

-- 119 storm survivors have visited one of the four Mobile Disaster Recovery Centers (MDRCs).

-- FEMA has already issued checks totaling $275,576 to disaster survivors who have registered with the agency.

HOW TO REGISTER FOR FEDERAL/STATE ASSISTANCE: Call (800) 621-3362 (FEMA), TTY (800) 462-7585 or online at Area locations of the MDRCs and hours are:

Jackson -- Vann Plaza, 375 Vann Dr., Suites E and F, Jackson, TN 38305 (located between Keith Short Bypass and North Highland Avenue); Hours are Mon. – Sun., 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. until further notice.

A center will open on Monday in Shelby County at the Hickory Hill Community Center,3910 Ridge Way Rd., Memphis, TN 38115; Hours are Monday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thereafter, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. until further notice.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Final Unofficial Primary Returns for Shelby County

Posted By on Wed, Feb 6, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Final unofficial returns for the presidential preference primaries in Shelby County, with all 274 precincts reporting:

Democratic Primary: Total votes, 98,033; Barack Obama, 68,516 (69.89 percent); Hillary Clinton, 27,914 (28.47 percent).

Republican Primary: Total votes, 50,320; Mike Huckabee, 18,930 (37.62 percent); John McCain, 14,852 (29.5 percent); Mitt Romney, 13,735 (27.3 percent); Ron Paul, 352 (3.64 percent).

The Election Commission says there are 611,000 registered voters in the county. If so, then the turnout was 24 percent, which was higher than the 15-20 percent some officials had predicted. There were 13 days of early voting.

On election day, the polls closed on schedule at 7 p.m. despite the heavy storms that swept through the area beginning at 5 p.m. --John Branston

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Stacey Campfield is a Serious Person

Posted By on Tue, Feb 5, 2008 at 4:00 AM

In this week's Flyer, Bianca Phillips wrote about a piece of legislation proposed by state representative Stacey Campfield (R-Paleolithic) that would prevent public elementary and middle schools from allowing "any instruction or materials discussing sexual orientation other than heterosexuality." (Yeah, we know, some real forward thinking going on there.)

When the Flyer posted the article online, we added what we thought was an obviously photo-shopped picture of Campfield holding a bumper sticker that read, "Confederate Values." (It should be noted that we did not photo-shop the picture; it was taken from a humorous political blog.)

We post funny pictures to accompany articles now and then, you see. We've run pictures of Trent Lott in a Dashiki, Pau Gasol in drag, and Harold Ford with a big cowboy moustache, for example, when we thought those pictures complemented the tone of an article.

Well, darned if we didn't tick ol' Stacey off. He called the Flyer office today and demanded in a very deep and serious voice that we remove the picture. Campfield contended that since the article was "serious," we shouldn't run a satirical picture with it.

Well, that's a matter of taste, not of law, but maybe he has a point. So here's what we're going to do: We'll add a note below the offending picture acknowledging that it was photo-shopped. And we'll also post the real picture (at right), which we think accurately reflects the seriousness of Mr. Campfield's status as a legislator.

UPDATE: We have removed the photo at the request of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

You can see where we might get confused as to where "satire" ends and "serious" begins with this guy.

--Bruce VanWyngarden

How Are You Doing Out There?

Posted By on Tue, Feb 5, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Here at Flyer World Headquarters, we're battened down, waiting for the next wave of weather to hit. All over the tri-state area there are reports of tornadoes, buildings destroyed, hundreds of trees down, and a few reports of fatalities in the Memphis area.

It's a weird night, as we find ourselves switching back and forth from storm-tracking weather radar on the local stations to presidential primary election coverage on CNN. If you've got a story or an anecdote to share about your experiences tonight, use the comments function. We'd like to hear it.

And be careful out there.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Tennessee Misses Target with Gun Laws

Posted on Fri, Feb 1, 2008 at 4:00 AM

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence recently presented "report cards" to every state, measuring their efforts to reduce gun crimes and violence, and Tennessee flunked just about every category. In fact, our state scored a 7 out of a total of 100 points.

The categories included:

• Measures to Curb Firearm Trafficking, by regulating gun dealers, requiring lost or stolen guns to be reported to the police, and more. Out of a possible 35 points, Tennessee scored 3.

• Strengthening Brady Background Checks, especially by closing loopholes in laws at gun shows. Tennessee scored 0 out of 25.

• Protecting Child Safety, by requiring gun locks and requiring handgun purchasers to be 21 years old. Tennessee scored 0 out of 20.

• Banning Military-Style Assault Weapons. Tennessee has never bothered to do this, so we scored 0 out of 10.

• Making it harder to Carry Guns in Public Places. Considering that our state is now debating whether it's okay to bring guns into places that serve alcohol, it’s no surprise that Tennessee scored only 4 out of 10 points in this category.

For a more detailed scoreguard of Tennessee, and see how we compare to other states, go here.

Voter Trust Task Force to Monitor Primary

Posted on Fri, Feb 1, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Thinking about casting a ballot for a dead relative in Tuesday's primary election? That wouldn't be wise. District Attorney Bill Gibbons announced Thursday that a special "Voter Trust Task Force" will be on hand to deal with any potential voter fraud.

Gibbons and Tennessee Bureau of Investigations Director Mark Gwyn created the force in 2006 as a response to allegations of fraud in past Shelby County elections.

On Super Tuesday, agents will be on standby to travel to any voting location at the request of the district attorney.

Voters who observe problems at the polls are instructed to call the Election Commission at 545-4125.

The Week That Was

Bass Pro, Theme Park, Neither One? Sound Off Here About The Pyramid.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 1, 2008 at 4:00 AM

All right, let's hear from you. What do you think about The Pyramid and Bass Pro or a theme park? Bass Pro has made a commitment, it seems, after meeting with a delegation of city and county officials in Missouri this week at their flagship store. Now the hard work begins -- getting political and public support to make it happen.

Here's what some people with a connection to The Pyramid back when it was built had to say. The comments have been minimally edited for brevity.

But that was then, this is now. What do you think? Please keep comments brief and on point, with no personal attacks.

Bill Morris, former mayor of Shelby County (when The Pyramid was approved and built): "I really like Greg Ericson's plan for a theme park. I think it is pretty exciting. They are ready to go, it sounds to me l. I prefer it to Bass Pro, with the caveat that I don't know all the details. I remember Greg from way back and he was always trying to do something for downtown. I've always been impressed with his thoroughness and support team. Downtown could use something for families. I have seen Bass Pro stores and they are exciting. But I don't know that it encompasses the marketing opportunities that the Ericson proposal does for making Memphis a destination city."

Dick Hackett, former mayor of Memphis (when The Pyramid was approved and built). "Bass Pro would be a major anchor tenant and attractor to the city. I say attractor, not just attraction. They're a fabulous organization. I have been to many of them around the country. I am a sportsman, and I live on a street named Sportsman Drive. I have watched busloads of people line up to get in. The real issue now is the math. Does it work for Bass Pro and does it work for the taxpayer? When you look at no revenue and only expense, you start there. The city makes their money at cash registers inside and outside the building, not on real estate deals. The Children's Museum (Hackett is CEO) would have a direct benefit as an attraction for families to come to next."

Pat Kerr Tigrett, downtown booster, designer, and widow of Pyramid visionary John Tigrett. "Whatever goes in there, the key is being successful. The Pyramid represented an amazing, happy, and frustrating time for my late husband. It is a positive welcoming icon to our city, and it's responsible for the NBA coming to Memphis. But it was built to recognize our music heritage too. If Bass Pro is 100 percent coming in, then I wish them success. If I had my druthers, I would like something with music potential, but who knows, maybe there is some way they can incorporate our music heritage. I have not seen the final plans."

Kerr Tigrett, son of Pat and John Tigrett, now running an import-export company in Memphis. "As the icon to our city, it needs to have a tenant that contributes back and provides new opportunities. And if that is Bass Pro, then so be it."

Jim Rout, former Shelby County mayor and commissioner and currently general manager and COO of the Mid-South Fair. "I have visited a number of Bass Pros when traveling, and they are first-rate deals. From afar, I sort of like the idea of a combination of Bass and Ericson. That's easy to say but maybe difficult to work out. No pun intended, it is time to fish or cut bait for Bass Pro. We have an opportunity to encourage those people to talk to each other and let pyramid and island both have something out of it. I voted against The Pyramid because I was opposed to the location, not the Pyramid itself. It doesn’t need to sit there vacant. If Bass Pro isn't going to come forward, and I hope they do, we need to get something else going on there."

Jeff Sanford, chief executive of the Center City Commission, former Memphis City Council member, and part of last week’s delegation to Bass Pro. "I was on the Pyramid reuse committee. Our consultant steered us toward destination retail like Bass Pro. If I were making the decision I would look at feasibility and take a very, very hard look at financing. Then look at sustainability, can the use survive in the marketplace over time, and would the city and county indebtedness be assumed by the project. I would very seriously consider Bass Pro as having the track record and financial wherewithal."

Vasco Smith, former Shelby County Commission member. "I don't know much about the different suggestions. I just saw the headline in the paper this morning. I can say that when I was on the commission at the time The Pyramid was built I did not like the proposal from the start. I went down there one night and looked over the site and it was a dark and dismal sort of thing. It was envisioned as a gold and glistening signature for the city, seen from miles and miles away. And it ended up in one of the lowest doggone spots in Memphis, with a railroad running through it. I think the whole thing was a failure from the beginning. I am not sure any of the proposals at the present time are that good. It's going to take a lot of money and thought from the people involved."

Greg Hnedak, architect, Hnedak Bobo Group, which was closely involved with an earlier proposal, now defunct, for a NARAS music museum in The Pyramid. "The city and county should now rate or rank the merits of both proposals. I think they both could be very successful ventures. The question now is who is willing to put some hard money at risk to advance the project. I have had contact with both of them but am not working for either group. Both have a lot of merit."

Henry Turley, developer of HarborTown and Uptown, which are neighbors to The Pyramid: "I think it's a great fit for Bass Pro and for Memphis. I hope it anchors the revitalization of The Pinch and links Uptown, downtown, and St. Jude into one seamless whole. Excellent work by Robert Lipscomb." (Full disclosure: Turley is part owner of Flyer parent company CMI.)

Carol Chumney, former member of the General Assembly, Memphis City Council, and 2007 candidate for mayor of Memphis: "I find it incredible that the Pyramid has sat empty for so long. It makes the most sense to have a tenant or owner that will help sell the idea of Memphis based upon its heritage in connection with the rest of the world. Does the Bass Pro theme fit with the concept of marketing our musical heritage? Since I'm not aware of Elvis being known to ever go fishing, I don't think so. And I'm opposed to the idea of a big fish on our landmark even if there is a Bass Pro because it will be just another joke on Jay Leno."

Pat Carter, CEO of Olympic Staffing, member of the Memphis Sports Authority, and member of Pyramid Building Authority: "I think Ericson's proposal is better for Memphis. It offers a lot more than Bass Pro is offering. I think what we need in Memphis is something to attract people from outside as well as inside of Memphis. I think children in cars will say, 'Mommy, Daddy, we want to go there." I believe we are out-of-step with a number of things going on around here. If we do not make our move now and capitalize at this moment then I think someone else will, south of us, in Tunica."

My Two Cents Worth: I'm a Bass Pro fan. I don't hunt or fish much but I like to look at all the paraphernalia Bass Pro puts in its bigger stores, which are part store, part food court, part museum/tourist trap, and part arcade. I always wind up spending about $40 on things I don’t really need. No admission charge is a plus in my book. So is the track record and cautious approach they have taken so far. It should work well with the river, the harbor, and Ducks Unlimited. And the top of The Pyramid is a great space for something. I hope this happens sooner rather than later so they can make that accessible.

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