[City Beat] The Long Goodbye 

County corruption cases drag on and on, suggesting more to come.

What's harder to get rid of than a stubborn stain or a bad smell? Old corruption cases involving Shelby County government insiders.

The files are still open on three criminal cases involving four former prominent county officials -- top mayoral aide Tom Jones, County Commission chief administrator Calvin Williams, and Juvenile Court clerk and former commissioner Shep Wilbun and his top aide, Darrell Catron -- suggesting that more indictments could be forthcoming. On top of that, an audit of personal spending and credit card use by members of the Shelby County Commission is still hanging.

Jones, an adviser to three county mayors for 26 years, pleaded guilty last year to federal charges involving misuse of county credit cards and was sentenced in January to 12 months and a day in prison. He was first ordered to report to the federal prison camp in Millington in March, then May, then June. Two weeks ago, his report date was changed once again, to August 16th. Al Harvey, Jones' attorney, said the extensions were requested because of a family medical problem and were sealed to avoid publicity.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim DiScenza, who is handling the case, said that, generally speaking, there are "a large number of reasons" for putting documents under seal, including the health of the defendant or someone in the defendant's family. But Dan Clancy, a former colleague of DiScenza in the Memphis office of the U.S. Attorney, said "it is unusual" to have sealed documents filed after a defendant has been found guilty and sentenced. And he questioned whether someone's health would be sufficient cause.

"I don't know how they would justify keeping it secret," said Clancy, who is now a defense attorney in Jackson, Tennessee. He is not involved in any of the Shelby County cases. He said secrecy is generally requested "to prevent harm to a defendant or witness or to prevent disclosure of information that might compromise an ongoing investigation."

In the last month of his term in 2002, former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout suspended Jones. Jones has said he paid for Rout's charges when they took trips together and that there was a "culture of entitlement" in county government. Questions have also been raised about Rout's personal investment with an adviser to the county pension fund.

Rout is president of Jack Morris Auto Glass. Asked this week if he had been asked to meet with grand jurors or investigators, Rout said, "I haven't heard anything."

Two other county corruption cases are unfolding slowly. In both cases, the defendants are experts in political infighting and the behind-the-scenes workings of local government. Wilbun, Williams, and James Sellers were indicted last October on state charges of misusing public funds to cover up a sexual assault. All have pleaded not guilty. The indictment alleged that the cover-up was supposed to protect Catron. Wilbun, Williams, and Sellers were originally scheduled to go on trial in criminal court on May 17th, but the trial was postponed until September 27th.

Wilbun is a former member of the Shelby County Commission, the Memphis City Council, and candidate for city mayor. Williams came under scrutiny when the commission bumped his salary to $101,856 for handling their travel expenses and various requests. He lost his job last year in the midst of a conflict-of-interest inquiry and a state audit. In a memo to commissioners, he has vowed to "retaliate to the fullest."

Catron, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in February 2003 to federal charges of embezzlement. DiScenza is also prosecuting that case. In open court, the prosecutor said Catron was a key player in an ongoing investigation of a county contractor who was paying kickbacks to various public officials. Fourteen months later, the contractor and the public officials have still not been indicted or named. Nor has Catron been sentenced, indicating prosecutors are not through with him. Sentencing, originally set for May 2003, then reset for March 2004, is now scheduled for July 14th. As in the Jones case, several sealed documents were filed in the Catron case last year and earlier this year. The offenses occurred in 2000 and 2001.

It's understandable that the wheels of justice would grind slowly in public corruption cases in Memphis, where former congressman Harold Ford Sr. was acquitted on federal charges in 1993 and former county mayor Bill Morris was indicted and unindicted on state charges in 1994. It is especially hard to identify criminal acts involving credit cards and political favors because of the "everyone-does-it" defense. But the interconnections of the defendants, the bad blood, the sealed documents, the repeated delays, DiScenza's hints, and Clancy's analysis lead to this conclusion: There's more news to come.

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