Friday, May 16, 2008

The Memphis Week That Was

Posted By on Fri, May 16, 2008 at 4:00 AM

"Proper predication" explained -- sort of. Predication is a big word for how federal prosecutors decide whom to go after in political corruption cases. It came up in former state senator Roscoe Dixon's trial two years ago. It came up again this week in Edmund Ford's trial when defense attorney Michael Scholl, who also represented Edmund's brother John, was questioning FBI agent Daniel Netemeyer.

It's Police Procedure 101 that crooks are useful in order to catch crooks. But it's also common knowledge that crooks lie, especially to save their own skin, and that their knowledge may be much more limited than they claim it is. Why, Scholl asked in so many words, was his man Ford, codenamed "cleansweep" by the FBI, the subject of an investigation while other elected officials were not? Did the government merely rely on Joe Cooper, a corrupt lobbyist with a 1977 felony conviction and a 2007 conviction and pending sentence on a money-laundering charge involving drug dealers?

Netemeyer was seriously constrained in his ability to answer the question. Both sides had agreed that Rickey Peete, the former councilman who pleaded guilty to bribery charges developed with Cooper's undercover assistance, was off limits in this trial. The most Netemeyer could say was that Ford was "one aspect" of the investigation of the Memphis City Council and that the FBI predicated "the individuals involved." And he could not, of course, disclose information about active investigations or politicians that were never charged. Also, Netemeyer now works out of St. Louis and may be out of the local loop.

Netemeyer, echoing statements made by assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Laurenzi in his opening statement, said Ford had a documented relationship with developer Rusty Hyneman on a car lease and another relationship with developer Jackie Welch on financing for Ford's funeral home. Information provided by Cooper along with other information developed by the FBI gave agents "reasonable belief" that there was proper predication. Verifying Cooper's information about Hyneman and Welch might have "jeopardized the investigation" of the City Council. Neither Hyneman nor Welch has been charged with anything.

"I'm not aware that Mr. Ford had ever done a favor for Mr. Hyneman," Netemeyer said. He said FBI Special Agent In Charge My Harrison in Memphis makes the call on opening an investigation after predication is established. Officials in Washington are "copied" but approval is given at "field level." The standard for predication, Netemeyer said, is lower than the standard for probable cause.

The gist of Netemeyer's statements, along with previous statements from federal prosecutors in Memphis, is that major decisions about corruption investigations are made at the local level. Public corruption specialists in Washington are in the loop, and approval for sting operations such as Operation Tennessee Waltz must be granted from Washington. But the decision making -- call it predication or targeting, if you will -- is made locally, not by the Attorney General of the United States who, like the United States attorneys around the country, is a political appointee. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was criticized last year for removing assistant United States attorneys for what some members of Congress -- mostly Democrats -- felt were political reasons. Both Laurenzi and Tennessee Waltz prosecutor Tim DiScenza are veteran career prosecutors.

Controlling the Memphis message. Three times this year police and top public officials have bypassed most if not all of the local media and granted interviews or access to national media. Memphis City Schools interim superintendent Dan Ward went on the O’Reilly Factor on Fox News to talk about videos of sexy "dancing" taken at Mitchell High School and first shown by WREG-TV Channel 3. Mayor Willie Herenton gave an interview to New York Times reporter Shaila Dewan about his "retirement" letter and thoughts about being superintendent (and, it should be noted, another interview to local station Fox 13 News). And producers of the television program The First 48 have had special access to crime scenes, including the mass murders on Lester Street, where local reporters were kept outside the yellow tape half a block from the house for several days. MPD is ending its relationship with the program after members of the City Council objected about the seedy image of Memphis that is being conveyed to a national audience. Best foot forward. Hide the dirty laundry, or at least don’t flaunt it. Reportorial turf protection and jealousy. All of those are at work here. My view on The First 48, which I have only seen parts of twice: enough is enough.

Kudos to Suhair Lauck and her Little Tea Shop downtown for being featured in the Food Network's program Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. The program with host Guy Fieri will air on May 18th at 3 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. and on May 19th at 1:30 a.m. And kudos to Felicia Suzanne's, Opera Memphis, and the Center City Commission for a classy lunch-hour event last week in the courtyard just north of the downtown restaurant on Main Street. Nice idea, and probably the first outdoor live-opera performance downtown in decades (ever?). And one more kudo to Calvin Turley and the Cotton Museum for a Sunday afternoon gig featuring Memphis jazz musicians and Dancing With The Stars-quality dancing by members of the local Red Hot Lindy Hop dancers.

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