If it happened in a John Grisham legal thriller, readers might shake their heads.
How likely is that, they might wonder: A big federal investigation of political corruption in Memphis and Tennessee. The FBI and federal prosecutors hot on the trail of some of the most powerful and well-known politicos in town. In guarded secrecy, federal grand jurors meet with prosecutors to hear their case and make the fateful decision to indict or not indict. And the foreman of the grand jury is the crusty, battle-hardened, retired editor of the daily newspaper that investigated many of the same politicians.
Well, it's not fiction.
When indictments by federal grand juries are returned to the clerk's office, it's usually the names of those indicted that attract attention. But in the paperwork for the recent indictment of Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks, the signature of the grand jury foreman was also notable: Angus McEachran, former editor of The Commercial Appeal.
Grand jury members are chosen from the randomly selected pool of people called for jury duty in the federal system. As anyone who has ever been on jury duty knows, the odds of being called are long but not all that long. Once called, many people are rejected or passed over for one reason or another and do not serve. The odds of being on a federal grand jury are longer, and the odds of being foreman of a federal grand jury investigating the Tennessee Waltz are longer still, given that there are four active federal grand juries. Moreover, both McEachran and Tennessee Waltz prosecutor Tim DiScenza are Harbor Town residents.
Federal court officials say this turn of events is simply a coincidence. McEachran declined to comment.
If grand jurors for political-corruption investigations were selected by committee instead of being chosen randomly, McEachran would be on anyone's short list. He was editor of The Commercial Appeal for 10 years and held other editing jobs at the newspaper earlier in his career. While he was editor of The Pittsburgh Press before coming back to Memphis, that newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes for investigative reporting. The Commercial Appeal broke several stories about state senator John Ford, who has been indicted in the Tennessee Waltz sting. McEachran had a reputation as a demanding editor with a taste for hard-hitting, well-sourced stories.
Grand jury sessions are secret, but McEachran might be either a barrier or a boon to prosecutors. The decision to indict is not unlike the decision to publish an unflattering story. Because of his 45 years of professional training, McEachran could be more skeptical and have a higher standard of probable cause than other jurors. At the same time, he is more knowledgeable about Memphis politics and the Ford and Hooks families than the average person. As an editor who supposedly once tied a reporter to a chair to get him to finish a story, he is unlikely to be a rubber stamp for the government.
According to U.S. District Court clerk Tom Gould, this is how the process of picking a grand jury foreman works. Every January and July, federal jurors are chosen at random from the pool of eligible voters in Shelby County. It is "purely random" whether they move to trial jury or grand jury duty. Grand jurors serve for 18 to 24 months. At any given time, there are four active grand juries in session, each with 23 members and 12 alternates.
Gould said he recommends two or three people for foremen of each grand jury, based on their work experience, education, and who he thinks would be a good person to head up an organization that could have to operate for as long as two years.
"It is not a volunteer situation," he said. "They are designated by federal court."
Gould, who took over the job earlier this year, said it was actually his predecessor, Robert DiTrolio, who recommended McEachran and the other foremen named prior to July.
As far as where the Tennessee Waltz investigation is headed -- and our sources assuredly do not include McEachran -- speculation among local officials is that the focus has turned from state lawmakers to members of the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission and possibly local developers. DiScenza has said in court that more charges are forthcoming against former state senator Roscoe Dixon, who resigned to become a top aide to Shelby County mayor A C Wharton and was indicted in the Tennessee Waltz sting six months later.