Ethics in the Tennessee Waltz sting

One of the more telling moments of the Tennessee Waltz drama occurred when Chris Newton, the token Republican in the sting, rose on the floor of the state House of Representatives last Wednesday (a day before he and the others went down) to withdraw the suspect bill designed to benefit what turned out to be a dummy electronics company.
Assuming the air of one outraged by an impropriety, Newton, one of the bill’s sponsors in the House, said he was yanking it because: “A certain individual who was supposed to have been a lobbyist did not register with the Registry of Election Finance for this particular company on behalf of this particular legislation.” That turned out to be Charles Love of Chattanooga, one of three “lobbyists” for the bill and one of two subsequently arrested.
One other “lobbyist” turned out to be a government informant. This was the soon-to-be-outed Tom Willis, a denizen of Capitol Hill and Legislative Plaza, and for that matter of City Hall and the county building right here in River City. Until his surprise conviction in 2002 of credit-card charges in Mississippi, Willis had earned the trust of the Establishment over the years, serving as a pivot person for enterprises ranging from Congressman Harold Ford Jr.’s annual Christmas-basket giveaway to the blue-ribbon NBA Now effort that resulted, ultimately, in the arrival of the Grizzlies and the construction of the FedExForum — circumstances that, in retrospect, have raised more questions about the community’s future than they have answered.
In a curious way, Willis’ comedown seems to have validated him for a different sort of trust.
F. Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t have had it more wrong when he famously opined, early in the last century, that there were no second acts in American lives. These days, anyhow, it’s a toss-up as to whether public persons can count on the five-act dramaturgy of Shakespeare’s time or the relatively stripped-down three-act structure favored by later playwrights. There is a reason why Richard Nixon lived his political nine lives and the G. Gordon Liddys and Chuck Colsons of the world go on to successful second careers.
Ask respected city councilman Rickey Peete, a good bet to run for mayor, how lasting his 1989 conviction for extortion has been. Nor was the arrest and presumed disgrace of former legislative lion Tommy Burnett, a decade or so ago, an impediment to his flourishing present livelihood as a lobbyist.
In the transcripts released by the FBI in last week’s detention hearing for John Ford, the senator is demonstrated to be suspicious enough of both Willis and the undercover agent known to him as businessman “L.C.” to utter not-so-veiled threats. (“I got a gun. I’ll just shoot you dead.”)
An important ancillary fact: Ford was not just growing alarmed; he was downright offended at what he was beginning to perceive as violations of the Code. Interrogating Willis, Ford asks about “L.C.” and company, “Anything that you know that you could, ah, tell me if, whether or not they’re legit. You know what I mean?” What he means by “legit” is: Are they the crooks they appear to be or are they shameless dissemblers, i.e., lawmen? “I trust you,” Ford keeps telling Willis, even as he vents his doubts.
And when the suspicious senator finally confronts “L.C.” with his misgivings, he puts it this way: “[I]f you’re honest with me, I’m gonna be honest with you.” Such language, establishing a moral probity of sorts as the root condition of what to the outside world looks like simple graft, is interspersed throughout these transcripts.
As the scandal unravels, tracking this inversion of ethical standards is destined to be one of the true tasks facing investigators — whether legal or journalistic.
Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.

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