New Game, Different Name 

Does the Bruce Thompson case cross the line between law and politics?

When Bruce Thompson, freshly charged with extortion and mail fraud, called a press conference last week to respond, the former county commissioner struck an unusual note of defiance, chastising My Harrison, the FBI's local agent in charge, for the "same game, different name" remark with which she had characterized his place in the ever-burgeoning series of federal indictments of local officials.

His life was no game, Thompson said, making the issue personal, and since the distinguished defense attorney Leslie Ballin stood at his elbow when he said it, lending his considerable legal imprimatur to the statement, what Thompson said smacked less of pique than of considered strategy. Indeed, it seemed overtly political, the response of one contender to another in a heated public debate.

And make no mistake: Though both Thompson's legal defenders and the prosecutorial team representing U.S. attorney David Kustoff will presumably offer abundant briefs, proofs, and exhibits in evidence as they join the issue, there is something political about not only this trial but the whole series of recent ones based on operations with catchy code names like Tennessee Waltz, Main Street Sweeper, and suchlike.

There had already been sporadic, mainly sub rosa efforts within the ranks of local Democrats to challenge the series of Justice Department prosecutions as partisan ones aimed at their party's power structure. The presence of a nominal Republican, former East Tennessee legislator Chris Newton, among the Tennessee Waltz indictees, had done little to dispel the accusation, since Newton's GOP colleagues had always considered him a fellow traveler with the General Assembly's Democrats.

The conservative Thompson, a bona fide upscale Gucci-wearing Republican with strong connections in the local business community, would seem to be a different matter. Yet it can be argued, at no prejudice to the legal merits of either case, that both Thompson's prosecution and that of former MLGW head Joseph Lee, currently under indictment for improper collusion with city councilman Edmund Ford Sr., are inherently political.

Rather than instances of out-and-out bribery, conveniently staged and videotaped by the government itself, these two cases are not stings but the results of real ex nihilo investigations of actions initiated by the principals themselves. What connects them to the prior cases is that they expressly target the freedom-of-action of public officials.

The prosecutions of Thompson and, even more obviously, Lee are aimed at what had previously been a no-man's-land of politics, the domain where favors are done in return for favors, where one hand washes the other, and where if you scratch my back, I'll sure as hell scratch yours.

Did MLGW president Lee choose to look the other way at Ford's thousands of dollars' worth of unpaid bills because the councilman changed his mind on Lee's acceptability as the utility's head, and because, even more crucially, Ford headed Lee's oversight committee? It might once have been said: That's just politics. But Harrison and Kustoff have now declared that statement inoperative, as chief prosecutor Tim DiScenza shortly will in court.

Thompson's case is even more ambivalent. Before he went to work on getting the Memphis school board to approve a school-construction contract for a West Tennessee company (for an ultimate fee of $250,000 for himself), the then commissioner sought — and got — the formal sanction of county attorney Brian Kuhn.

No conflict of interest, said Kuhn, who reaffirmed again Monday his belief that Thompson, distanced by the state's funding formula both from city-school spending per se and from oversight of specific school construction, was within his rights to act as an advocate for the company.

That was on pure conflict-of-interest grounds, stressed Kuhn, who eschewed any judgment about various potential illegalities associated with other aspects of the case. Asked whether the Thompson and Lee cases could be interpreted as incursions by federal authorities onto turf previously regarded as exclusively and flexibly political, Kuhn allowed — unofficially and informally, you understand — that he understood how somebody could see it that way.

In an interview with the Flyer back in 1994, when he was first running for the Senate, current presidential hopeful Fred Thompson mused on the then ongoing Whitewater investigation into President Bill Clinton's private finances and, at some passionate length, expressed regret at what he saw as the creeping criminalization of politics.

Locally as well as nationally, what Thompson then lamented seems now to be the very name of the game.

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