City Reporter 

City Reporter

Cleaning Up a Mess

County official's staffing agency gets unusual investigation.

By John Branston

Quoting here, "the shit" has once again hit the fan at Shelby County government.

In a report laced with candid personal appraisals, political threats, eavesdropping, and -- gasp! -- four-letter words, an independent investigator recounts the latest conflict between Calvin Williams, administrator of the Shelby County Commission office, and Shelby County Assessor Rita Clark.

The gist of the fuss is that Williams urged Clark and a top aide to hire employees from his moonlighting business, T & T Temporary Services, then got upset when they wouldn't do it and, in Williams' opinion, told on him. The overture itself is a low-voltage story about a possible conflict of interest. But Williams' "irate" and threatening reaction to being rebuffed, along with the reality-television tone of investigator Les Bowron's skillful interviews, included verbatim in his report, give the story an upgrade.

In an angry phone call last week, Williams told Clark, "I'm the wrong Negro to be messin' with" and suggested he would "ride your butt all the way to reelection" if she didn't clean up the "mess" made by Clark and "the shit starter," Clark aide Cheyenne Johnson.

Williams, who makes approximately $100,000 a year in his full-time job as administrator of the commission office, started T & T Temporary Services, named after his daughter, nicknamed "Tu Tu," six months ago.

With an office in the 100 North Main Building, a block from the county building, Williams, listed on the business letterhead as "owner," and "managing partner" Valarie Richardson, who no longer works for T & T, sought business from Clark, Shelby County Trustee Bob Patterson, and the Memphis City Schools. Patterson hired two workers at $14 an hour and has paid them approximately $8,000.

It is not unusual for county officials to hire temps. During property reappraisals, Clark spent roughly $1 million on temporary help. But she told Bowron she was concerned that Williams had a conflict of interest and that his agency was not on a list of approved county vendors.

Clark is not politically naive. She had her own 15 minutes of notoriety a few years ago when she hired some politically connected helpers and lowered residential property appraisals for influential politicians, including state Senator Curtis Person. She says she took her concerns to county personnel officer Jim Martin in August and that he told her "as an elected official I could hire anybody I wanted." After that she kept her concerns about Williams to herself and her staff (Williams claims they leaked them to the media) until late November, when he called her. She put the call on her speaker phone, which attracted the attention of Clark's assistant, Patrick Lafferty, in a nearby office. As Williams ranted at her, Clark took notes. She immediately reported her concerns to the Shelby County Attorney's Office and attorney Danny Presley.

According to the report, "Due to the hostility expressed during the phone conversation; due to the sensitive political environment in which it occurred; and due to the need for clear, outside objectivity," Bowron and his firm, Allen & Associates, were hired to "act as a fact gatherer." Bowron has been an attorney since 1982 and is a former four-term member of the Wyoming Legislature. He was able to interview all of the main players and tape-record all of them except Williams, who asked that he only take handwritten notes.

Williams told the Flyer he could not talk about the report. In his interview with Bowron, Williams said his boss is the chairman and "each chairman can operate under whatever rules he wants. The rules can change every September." He said it would be a conflict of interest if T & T did business with the commission or mayor's office but not elected officials such as the trustee and assessor. He also gave Bowron candid, colorful descriptions of his relationships with various other elected officials whose business he did not seek.

Williams disputed parts of Clark's account and corroborated others. While there is no county ordinance prohibiting use of the word "shit" (which Williams denied using), the report goes into this at some length, apparently to determine the tone of the phone conversation. It is also disputed whether or not Williams described Clark as his "enemy," which could be construed as official intimidation. The commission approves Clark's budget.

The report concludes with this paragraph:

"Whether or not Mr. Williams' conduct violates the county employee handbook or suggests other public misconduct, official misconduct or official oppression under Tennessee law is not for this investigator to determine. However, one could hardly review the evidence gathered and not conclude that Mr. Williams wanted Mrs. Clark and her office to either take some affirmative action or cease taking action ."

Shelby County Attorney Donnie Wilson and Shelby County Commission Chairman Walter Bailey have agreed to give the report to Brian Kuhn, the county attorney from 1984 to 1992 who is now working in private practice and as an assistant county attorney assigned to the county commission.

"I will conduct any additional interviews or fact-finding I think necessary and then write a conclusionary report," said Kuhn. "I expect a fairly rapid timetable."

Caught in the Act

U of M area robbery spree ended by quick-thinking student.

By Janel Davis

Memphis police have taken three suspects into custody for robberies in the University of Memphis area.

Memphis and university police reported that Myron Baker and Michael Crawford, both 18, were apprehended last Monday during a robbery at an apartment at 3562 Mynders, just west of the campus. The two were caught when a student who saw them going into the residence called university police to the scene.

A third suspect, a 17-year-old juvenile, escaped out a window but was arrested the next day. None of the suspects was enrolled at the university.

The three were allegedly involved in two separate robbery incidents occurring November 30th and have been charged with aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, and aggravated kidnapping. Police said the suspects did not threaten or harm their victims but were armed with handguns. The suspects would tie up the victims and place them in a closet. Credit cards, cell phones, a laptop computer, and cash were stolen from the residences. No dollar amount has yet been placed on the stolen items.

"Things have changed [on the campus and in the area] since years ago," said Bruce Haber, University of Memphis police director, who supervises the unit's 30 officers. "That's why we work so closely with the [Memphis Police Department's Central] precinct and attend weekly precinct meetings."

Haber said in spite of the recent robberies the university's crime rate is down 21 percent from last year. Last year's Crime in Tennessee Report listed 43 burglaries and two robberies for the University of Memphis.

The suspects are also being investigated for a possible connection to a series of seven robberies in the same area during a three-week period which began November 6th. All of the robberies occurred during evening and nighttime hours.

Police reported that the three suspects have juvenile criminal records but no record of robbery or violent criminal charges.

Saluting Schnucks

Store is honored for work with the handicapped.

By Bianca Phillips

Schnucks may be new to the Mid-South, but the company still managed to nab Mid-South Arc's "Employer of the Year" award for providing access to jobs for people with disabilities.

The award was presented last month at Mid-South Arc's Annual Benefit and Awards Gala. The gala honored disabled individuals who have made great achievements as well as businesses that have contributed to the support of persons with developmental disabilities.

"Our company has always thought it's important to take time to match people with various skills with positions we have open," said Lori Willis, director of communications for Schnucks Markets, Inc. "In one case, we even made a checkout lane compatible for a woman in a wheelchair."

For the "Employer of the Year" award, judges considered the number of people hired in the 12 Mid-South Schnucks stores, the retention rate for those employees, and the sincerity of the work being done. Also taken into consideration was the fact that when Schnucks acquired the Seessel's stores in June, there was no displacement of people with disabilities.

Mid-South Arc is a United Way agency that provides developmental, residential, leisure, and family support services to people with disabilities in West Tennessee.

Turning Up the Heat

School board gets hot and bothered over HVAC bids.

By Mary Cashiola

"I've heard some lies tonight. I can't trust what I'm hearing, so I'm just going on these two pieces of paper for my vote," said Commissioner Lee Brown at the most recent Memphis City Schools board meeting.

At issue was a $14,873,976 price tag from Honeywell Inc. for new heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems at Longview Middle and Whitney Elementary schools. Last week, Commissioner Barbara Prescott made a motion to rescind the board's approval of the bid, saying she had information that the price was too high.

Brown, along with five other commissioners, voted not to rescind.

The two pieces of paper were a memo from Honeywell and a memo from Inman Construction, both dated December 2nd. Honeywell said it had spent 5,000 hours coming up with the $14 million figure, which comprised the lone bid on the project. The memo from Inman president Page Inman said his company had spent one to two hours on its estimate.

Accusations flew from the board to the staff, each saying the other had brought the bid recommendation before the board. Commissioner Lora Jobe accused the board's Capital Improvement Project (CIP) committee of "strong-arming" the process and told Superintendent Johnnie Watson that if he wasn't behind a recommendation, he needed to clearly say so.

Board president Michael Hooks said the issue had been convoluted by an article in The Commercial Appeal. "It's obviously erroneous and the staff doesn't say one way or another. Once again we have to work in concert," he told Watson. "I'm talking to Mr. McElrath, Mr. Superintendent, because lately a lot of this has fallen under his umbrella." McElrath is the associate superintendent for business operations with the city schools system.

Prescott said she hadn't meant to cause trouble.

"I simply want to let our dollars stretch as far as they can. By all estimates -- except for the company that was awarded the bid -- the estimate is high, very high," she said. The staff's own estimate put the project at $10 million to $13 million. "Even the smaller difference can be large enough over time."

Earlier this fall, the issue came before the CIP committee because one vendor interested in the project wanted more time. The committee decided not to extend the deadline, saying it wasn't fair to other companies to delay the process.

The bid was approved without discussion at a November meeting that became contentious when the commissioners discussed the downtown school.

Commissioner and CIP committee president Hubon Sandridge said he was "in the dark" about why the issue was back before the board. "This board has voted to move forward. I have no problem with the dollar amount. ... If we rescind this, it's like saying to Whitney and Longview and 26 other schools, 'We'll get to you when we can.'"

Whitney and Longview are among a long list of schools that have chronic heating and air-conditioning problems; the conditions contribute to a poor learning environment.

The board also heard a presentation Monday night on the preliminary evaluations of last summer's Title 1 summer-school program. Ninety-four percent of fifth-graders enrolled were promoted; 87 percent of third-graders in the program also passed.

The program had a smaller, 1-to-15 teacher/student ratio instead of the 1-to-20 or -25 ratio of regular classrooms, and all teachers had to be certified and experienced in their subject areas.

Take the Money and Run

Magazine sales scam appears in Memphis.

By Andy Meek

Christy Pollan didn't go to school one recent Monday morning. She could have kicked herself by the afternoon.

Pollan, a 17-year-old junior at White Station High School, was one of a growing number of victims of a magazine-subscription sales scam making its way across the Mid-South.

She stayed home from school that morning because she felt a little sick and didn't want to get out of bed. At noon, she heard a knock on the door.

"When I opened it, there was a guy standing there, wanting to come in and sell me a magazine," she said. "He was a little pushy, eager to get inside and talk, but he seemed nice and I really didn't suspect anything."

The young man told her he was a high school student from Texas, and he was in the neighborhood trying to raise funds for his out-of-town school group.

"He didn't say the name of the school and he didn't say what he was working to try and actually do," Pollan said. "I didn't think to ask."

He did say that the organization he was working with, a company called Paragon Marketing Group, was giving "tuition points" to the teenage participants according to the number of magazine subscriptions they sold door-to door.

Pollan let the man inside but told him she didn't have any money. He asked if she had a checking account.

"Yes," she said, "but there's no money in it, so I can't write you a check."

"Most of our customers are teenagers," he replied, "so we'll hold the check for 14 days to give you enough time to put money in your account."

Pollan finally wrote a $40 check for a two-year subscription to Cosmopolitan. The man gave her a receipt and told her how to cancel the order if she wanted.

"On the back of the receipt," Pollan said, "he showed me a number I could call within three days and cancel my order, and my check wouldn't be cashed. He said I could mail my receipt in also, as long as it was postmarked within three days, and I could cancel."

The address on the back of the receipt was for a mailing business in Antioch, Tennessee, called Postal Annex. A call to Postal Annex revealed that a Chad Hearn, president of Paragon, kept a post office box at the business.

According to Pollan's First Tennessee bank records, her check was cashed the next day. To date, she hasn't received her first issue of the magazine.

A First Tennessee representative told her that the check was put into an NBC account by direct deposit, so the person who deposited it didn't have to sign the back of the check.

Pollan then called the number on the back of her receipt. "The first time I called, I got a message saying, 'All representatives are busy,'" she said. She kept calling for several days with no response. She then mailed in her receipt and filed a complaint with the Memphis Better Business Bureau. The BBB says there have have been "a few" inquiries about Paragon Marketing Group.

The problem has been more pronounced elsewhere in Tennessee. According to a story by Channel 5 in Nashville, "Dozens of people say they've been ripped off trying to help school children. Teenagers have been going door-to-door selling magazine subscriptions, claiming the money will pay for a school trip. Forty-one people in Middle Tennessee and two other states say the magazines never came and they can't get a refund."

The Nashville Better Business Bureau began monitoring Paragon Marketing in September 2001, according to bureau president Kathleen Calligan. To date, they have received 167 complaints. "We received a number of complaints from people who say they were being contacted by the group to buy magazines which were never delivered," said Calligan.

Chris Crafton lives near Pollan. He says he was also approached by a Paragon salesperson. "A young girl came to my door wanting to sell me magazines," he said. "She said she was with Paragon Marketing Group and trying to raise money for a trip." Crafton didn't give her any money, but he and Pollan wonder how widespread the company's presence is in Memphis.

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