Caustic Fields Letter to Herenton Signals Return of Would-Be Muckraker



“Dear Ex-Mayor Herenton:/ As a former friend and unjustly accused citizen, I was heartened by your resignation but saddened by the mess you have left behind. The City of Memphis is bankrupt. The pension plan is 50 % of its value to cover all of the people who will be eligible soon. You have 500 people employed who are not doing anything and should be fired….”

This is the beginning of a relatively brief two-page letter, dated July 30, to the freshly resigned Willie Herenton from Richard Fields, the lawyer who had been friend and confidante to Herenton as candidate and then mayor for years until their highly public falling-out in 2007.

Though the tone of the first paragraph of that missive (which has had an extensive underground circulation of late) is caustic enough, it gets worse from there, going downhill both in civility and, alas, in quotability (short of a full and careful vetting by a libel attorney).

In the body of the letter Fields makes a number of accusations against the former mayor, his family members, and his closest aides, alleging a full catalogue of sexual irregularities and, as described, patently criminal activities. Indeed, Fields employs the word “criminality” as a catch-all phrase for his allegations.

Among the few passages that are quotable without legal risk is this statement: “Your friends that you hired will desert you because there is nothing you can do for them. Without being mayor, you have no power.”

Another relatively tame broadside, coupled with a threat: “The infamous annual Christmas party was a bold faced lie. No one who paid $1,000 per person knew you were receiving funds personally. I am filing a class action lawsuit for you to refund personally all monies you received from the party donations.”

And there is this spiteful and, to Fields’ remaining friends who know of the letter, troubling conclusion: “I am so glad you resigned. We will see each other in court many times over and I will look down upon your sufferings in the hereafter. Yes, I do pray, and God has answered my prayers.”

As recently as the middle years of the current decade, Fields appeared to be riding high. The California native, who arrived in Memphis in the ‘60s as an anti-poverty activist and ultimately became a well-known civil rights attorney, had launched a new career as a political arbiter of sorts, disseminating widely read open letters at election time which praised selected candidates and damned selected others — in the case of the latter, freely citing details of known or alleged personal and professional failings.

The would-be kingmaker, who had been an early supporter of mayoral candidate Herenton in 1991, had evolved into a kingbreaker by 2007, or so alleged the mayor, who accused Fields, whom he termed a “snake,” of orchestrating a blackmail plot against him.

As Herenton outlined things at a well-attended press conference, Fields had allegedly conspired to coax a sometime topless dancer named Gwendolyn Smith to attempt a sexual liaison with the mayor, the threatened exposure of which might force Herenton to resign his office or, at the very least, quit his reelection campaign. The plot was aborted, in Herenton’s version, when Smith came to him instead and revealed the intent of it.

No legal action was taken against Fields, though he was later censured by the state Supreme Court for alleged dereliction toward a client in another matter. (He later had the censure reversed.)

But Fields saw his reputation take a nose-dive that has continued right up until the present. He had already been expelled once from the Shelby County Democratic executive committee for his collaboration with state Republican Party lawyers in making the case against the legality of Democratic state senator Ophelia Ford’s suspect first election.

In the wake of Herenton’s accusations, Fields, who had managed to get himself reelected to the committee, was forced to resign once again, at the insistence of then party chairman Keith Norman.

Fields had led a relatively low-profile existence the last two years, but he surfaced unexpectedly at a recent meeting of the Shelby County Commission, where he interrupted a routine commission vote to adjourn, asking to be allowed to speak.

Permitted to do so, he began a rambling discourse in a quavering voice. He began with an attack on the Alabama law firm Beasley Allen, which had been hired by the commission to counter firms thought to be abusing their foreclosure options against local property owners.

Fields then began to justify himself as the victim of “false” accusations of being “off the wall” and concluded his remarks to the commission with a vow to “start again,” as he had with his earlier election interventions, to “scour the earth for the kinds of things that we don’t need in our politics.”

More recently, Fields turned up, clad in polo shirt and Bermuda shorts, in the courtroom of Chancellor Walter Evans to audit testimony during the hearing of city attorney Elbert Jefferson's successful suit against mayor pro tem Myron Lowery's attempting firing of Jefferson.

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