Downsizing Crime 

The Swearengen Ware case shows the effects of economic deflation.

As Joe Friday used to say on the old Dragnet TV show: Just the facts, ma'am.

At 3:30 or so last Friday afternoon, a "graveyard" time for news in the lexicon of journalism, City Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware — or "Swearengen-Ware," in the hyphenated form of a press release from the district attorney general's office — was "taken into custody," booked, and released on her own recognizance.

In lay terms, Ware — who has, by all accounts, been seriously ill during several weeks of hospitalization — turned herself in.

Her crime? (And, given the fact of her indictment, that word isn't as ironic as the circumstances of this case might make it seem.) In the words of the district attorney's press release: "... [O]n at least eight occasions between June 30, 2002, and May 13, 2009, Swearengen-Ware registered or renewed the registrations for motor vehicles which had not been inspected as required by Memphis City Code of Ordinances."

In other words, she ducked automobile inspection for eight years.

Hinted at only obliquely (and without dollar amounts specified) in the press release is the fact, which became public knowledge through previous indictments of employees of the Shelby County Clerk's office, that Councilwoman Ware paid several of these employees $5 each for their help in processing her illegal registrations.

In lay terms, she tipped them — though the aforesaid previous indictments referred to these payments as "bribes."

Ware's alleged crime — defined as "official misconduct" and pursued "in agreement with" Charles Nichols, the former chief administrative officer of the clerk's office — is classified as a Class E felony, for which, if convicted, she could serve a term of one to two years.

She isn't likely to, of course. As the district attorney's press release points out, "Under state law, the court could grant her probation or diversion." And most likely will. Besides the embarrassment of the indictment, however, there are other immediate real-world penalties. They were summed up by a single sentence in a pro forma statement issued by current council chair Harold Collins: "Any elected or appointed official charged with official malfeasance shall be suspended with pay pending resolution of the charge."

Matter of factly, Collins elaborated: "Now that these charges are official, Mrs. Ware has been relieved of her official duties as Chairman of the Public Services & Neighborhoods Committee and Landmarks Committee, as a member of the O&M Budget Committee, Housing & Community Development Committee, Parks Committee, Personnel Committee, Planning & Zoning Committee and as liaison to Convention Center Board and Riverfront Development Corporation, as well as suspended from her official duties as a member of the Memphis City Council until such time as this matter is resolved."

"Until such time," indeed. What has been resolved already is Ware's longstanding influence in city government — reckoned until quite recently by journalists who cover the council on a day-to-day basis as without peer among the 13 members of that body.

With council elections coming next year, with Ware burdened with health problems as well as legal ones, and with the stigma of public punishment upon her, Ware is already off the map of the power establishment.

It is a change as abrupt and meaningful as the one that occurred in May 2005, when several members of Shelby County's legislative contingent — notably, the very powerful go-to guy, state senator John Ford — were extracted from their positions of influence (and ultimately from their liberty) by the FBI's "Tennessee Waltz" sting.

The Waltzers all netted thousands of dollars in improper gains — Senator Ford himself toting up some $50,000 to go with hundreds of thousands of dollars he was later demonstrated, in another trial for another offense, to have come by.

Councilwoman Ware's fate will be a source of satisfaction to some and a reason for dismay to others. Questions of justice aside, one fact is indisputable: In a time of general economic dis-location, the definition of "ill-gotten gains" has come in for serious deflation indeed.

Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.

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