Waiting for the Other Shoe

Federal investigations of local government overshadow elections.

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It's election week, but, more importantly, it's investigations month.

Criminal investigations of public officials trump elections, even big ones, which this one is not. A little over a year ago, A C Wharton was elected county mayor. Popular, energetic, and with a fresh agenda, Wharton has been preoccupied with various investigations of county officials almost since the day he took office -- Tom Jones, county credit cards, travel expenses, moonlighting, nepotism, Medical Examiner Dr. O.C. Smith.

It's a long way from over. Jones suggested there was a "culture of entitlement" in which members of the previous county administration helped themselves to benefits and perks. There is now a culture of investigation.

Four federal grand juries are meeting this month. The sleeping giant across the mall in the federal building -- the United States Attorney's Office -- is the most active in political corruption cases since the trial of U.S. Rep. Harold Ford 10 years ago. Grand-jury proceedings are secret, but it's known that one is looking at the Smith case and another has returned indictments against a gang of thieves and drug dealers operating out of the Memphis Police Department's property and evidence room.

A federal grand jury, unlike a state grand jury, is a powerful investigative tool well-suited to uncovering layers of corruption or, some say, political vendettas. Another grand jury, along with state auditors, has been investigating the office of the Juvenile Court clerk under former clerk Shep Wilbun. Wilbun's top aide, Darrell Catron, pleaded guilty in January to a federal charge of embezzlement and has been cooperating with prosecutors. His friend Calvin Williams was booted as chief administrator for the County Commission earlier this year and has testified before the grand jury.

Meanwhile, Jones, a top aide to former county mayor Jim Rout, is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to embezzlement in a separate federal case. Prosecutors, presumably, are negotiating his sentence, already postponed once, based on the amount of money misspent and other information Jones might give them.

That's a lot of key people and county institutional memory -- not to mention a lot of grudges -- at the disposal of federal investigators and prosecutors. For current or recently departed county officials with skeletons in their closets, sleep could be fitful for a while.

Federal investigations of political corruption often set off a daisy chain of events that can take months or years to play out as former associates turn on one another, sparking more investigations. In a county government narrowly divided along racial and political party lines, there's a "one of ours for one of theirs" mentality as well. Add to that the fact that the Shelby County district attorney, Bill Gibbons, is a former member of the City Council and the County Commission and an active Republican. And the United States attorney, Terrell Harris, is a former colleague of Gibbons in the state prosecutor's office.

Add it all up, and there hasn't been this much intrigue and sizzle in the federal building since former U.S. attorney Hickman Ewing Jr. was going after (mostly) Democratic politicians and labor leaders and high-profile businessmen, gamblers, and coaches in the 1980s.

Here's a look at the investigations, where they stand, and where they're likely to go:

* As a public official, Shep Wilbun held three different jobs and twice tried to be city mayor. The transition to private citizen has not been easy.

As Juvenile Court clerk from 2000 to 2002, Wilbun is a key figure in the Catron investigation. Wilbun got the job while serving on the County Commission as the result of a backroom deal and lost it by a single percentage point in a venomous election.

Wilbun started his political career as a Memphis City Council member. He made an unsuccessful bid to be the consensus black candidate to oppose Dick Hackett for mayor in 1991. In 1994 he was elected to the Shelby County Commission (a career path also taken by Gibbons, Joe Ford, and the late James Ford). He liked to talk about the big picture whether the subject at hand was transportation, housing, downtown development, or poverty. With degrees from Dartmouth and MIT, he often spoke well and provocatively even when his ideas seemed grandiose.

He came within a whisker of being a city division director in 1996 when Willie Herenton withdrew an offer to head up the Division of Housing and Community Development. Herenton cited a city-administered housing loan of $950,000 on which Wilbun and his partners were delinquent. Wilbun said his share was only $6,000.

There were hard feelings on both sides. Wilbun suggested the mayor had deliberately embarrassed him. In 1999, Wilbun ran for city mayor against Herenton. The campaign made it clear that Herenton had little use for Wilbun. But on election night, there was Wilbun, grinning from Herenton's victory platform. It was a strange moment. The challenger had gotten 3.5 percent of the vote and finished fifth in a 15-candidate field.

Long in search of a full-time government job, Wilbun finally got one a year later. But Juvenile Court was far afield from his training in architecture and urban planning, and his sudden passion for juvenile justice and child welfare rang hollow. The complicated horse-trading that got him there involved Democrats and Republicans, notably fellow commissioner Tom Moss. Disgruntled outsiders almost immediately began plotting.

Wilbun blamed political enemies for the state and federal investigation of his office that began shortly after he took control. The publicity probably cost him the 2002 election, which he lost, 49 percent to 48 percent, to Republican Steve Stamson.

Catron has told prosecutors about county credit card abuse, bogus cash advances, and an unnamed fraudulent contractor with the clerk's office. Williams, who did all sorts of political and personal favors for commissioners in return for his $100,000 salary, has said prosecutors asked him about a $1,500 cash payment he delivered to the family of a female employee in the clerk's office who accused Catron of sexual harassment. Williams would also know how county commissioners spend public money for travel and entertainment.

* City councilman E.C. Jones, a former policeman, had the best line of the week. Commenting on the help-yourself policy of the Police Department's property room, Jones said, "Police check pawnshops regularly. It looks like they were using the property room as a pawnshop for stolen goods. Why not watch your own pawnshop?"

As FBI agents and police parade a growing number of rogues before mug-shot cameras and grand jurors, you have to wonder how this investigation can stop short of the deputy-director level at the least. City employees and council members have to fill out forms open to public scrutiny for legitimate requisitions. Casino employees who handle money are watched by cameras and layers of supervisors. But a gang of thieves had free access to cash and drugs worth millions of dollars in the "pawnshop."

So much for Mayor Herenton's "no scandals in my administration."

* The O.C. Smith case continues to attract national interest.

Dr. Michael Baden, former chief medical examiner for New York City and host of the HBO series Autopsy, talked to the Flyer last week.

Baden said Tennessee has "a long tradition of holding medical examiners in high regard and having very good medical examiners licensed as forensic pathologists." But it is not unusual for medical examiners to get in trouble.

"Over the years, medical examiners are like baseball managers. I had my problems 25 years ago with the mayor of New York. Every time we testify we step on someone's toes. What is unusual about the Smith case is the suggestion that the charges might be made up. I've testified in a lot of Mafia cases in New York in 43 years. I have never been physically attacked or verbally attacked by the bad guys," said Baden.

* While it apparently is not the subject of a grand-jury investigation, nepotism and self-dealing by county commissioners have attracted the attention of auditors and The Commercial Appeal.

A zero-tolerance policy would seem to be in line with Mayor Wharton's actions in a little-publicized case a year ago. Last November, Wharton fired Sam McCraw as administrator of support services because he had a stake in a county contract. Should county elected officials be held to a different standard?

* Finally, federal prosecutors still have the Albert Means case and football coach Lynn Lang to deal with. Lang's sentencing has been postponed twice.

Meanwhile, lawyers and University of Alabama partisans Tommy Gallion and Philip Shanks are moving ahead with their counterattack on the NCAA. Alabama plays Tennessee October 25th in Tuscaloosa. Watch for some down-and-dirty before that.

branston@memphisflyer.com

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