Opinion » Editorial

A Bridge Too Far?

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Anybody who expresses skepticism about the prospects of the U.S. Attorney's Office, in tandem with the FBI, for closing out a prosecution successfully should probably submit to the proverbial head examination. After all, in the 11 Tennessee Waltz-related cases tried or otherwise resolved so far, federal prosecutors and the men and women of the bureau have proved to be literally invincible — a perfect record.

In the last week alone, guilty pleas were wrung from two lions of the state legislature: former state senator Kathryn Bowers of Memphis, who had resigned after being indicted, and state senator Ward Crutchfield of Chattanooga, who still serves. It's clear though that he, like Bowers, who is due for sentencing this fall, will be among the missing when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

But we are reserving judgment about both the validity and the outcome of new prosecutions announced last week by the two federal offices. These indictments — of former MLGW head Joseph Lee, city councilman Edmund Ford, and Ford's landlord Dennis Churchwell — pose some troubling questions. Not that we countenance the offenses these three men are accused of — namely, engaging in improper trade-offs of favors to secure private goals from city government. Basically, the entire nexus of the case lies in the incontrovertible fact of Ford's being a world-class deadbeat in relation to the whopping bills he owed to MLGW in utility fees and to Churchwell in rent for his funeral home.

The government charges that Ford was given a pass by Lee in return for the councilman's favorable attitude on matters, some personal and financial, of importance to the utility president. Churchwell and Ford are accused of a compact in which the councilman voted Churchwell's way on zoning issues in which the latter had a vested interest, in return for inhabiting his professional quarters rent-free.

Sleaz-eee! This is big-time corruption, and it should be punished. We shed no tears for Lee, who was sacked from his job when these and other matters became public, nor for Ford, who already carries a bribery indictment and is clearly a scofflaw of unmatchable arrogance, nor for the self-serving Churchwell, for whom the word "lout" may well have been invented.

The question is: How much of this unsavory one-hand-washes-the-other mess actually rises to the level of crime? It is not by way of excusing the behavior to observe that these acts are consistent with and bear the same shape, odor, and texture of the way politics, government, and private interests have always interacted. If this case succeeds, are we to call for the prosecution of a public servant who sponsors or votes for significant legislation on behalf of a major campaign contributor? Does anybody doubt that causal connections to one degree or another exist in such instances? And how does one extricate from all these itemized quid pro quos simple facts of friendship or convenience?

The burden of proof is, as always, on the government, but in this case we trust it can also demonstrate to a jury that it is not expanding its immense power into areas of conduct that, however questionable, have rarely if ever been regarded as criminal.

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