CITY BEAT: Fallen Hero

The corruption trial of former Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell has Memphis parallels.

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Atlanta’s version of the 1993 Harold Ford trial and the ongoing Operation Tennessee Waltz investigation got under way this week as former Mayor Bill Campbell went on trial on federal corruption charges.

This one bears watching in Memphis for several reasons.

Campbell, 52, was a black mayor in a Southern city that once called itself “too busy to hate” and which has had a black mayor since 1973. A janitor’s son who graduated from Vanderbilt University, he was mayor of Atlanta from 1994 to 2002 and spokesman for the city during the 1996 Olympics. He was indicted in 2004 on 11 counts of bribery, racketeering, and fraud after a seven-year investigation that has convicted 12 city officials and city contractors.

National news coverage of the trial has noted that, with some notable exceptions, it has divided the city along racial lines. The Los Angeles Times quoted Democratic state representative Bob Holmes, who said, “White people think he was an awful, corrupt mayor. African Americans see him as a champion of the poor.”

There are similarities to the trial of former U.S. representative Harold Ford Sr., who was investigated for several years and tried twice before being acquitted in 1993. Ford was a legendary Memphis congressman who fought to keep his trial in Memphis instead of Knoxville, where federal prosecutors wanted to try him. Ford won with a mostly white jury but not until both sides had played the race card.

Now it is former state senator John Ford who is under indictment in Operation Tennessee Waltz, along with two other current and former state legislators and Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks. All of the Memphis defendants are black, and all have pleaded not guilty and, so far, have indicated they will go to trial.

Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and John Ford will be following the Campbell trial closely, and Herenton may be called to testify as a witness along with former Herenton aide Reginald French.

Herenton was a political friend and occasional host and companion of Campbell when the former Atlanta mayor visited Memphis and Tunica. In 2003, Herenton testified for the federal government in Atlanta against Herbert McCall, one of the Atlanta city officials who has been convicted. McCall and former Atlanta chief operating officer Larry Wallace pitched a contractor, Johnson Controls, to Herenton in 2000. Herenton smelled a rat and rejected them. On several occasions, including a press conference this month, he has called proposals by bogus contractors and their consultants “crazy stuff.”

The middleman for the meeting in 2000 was French, a sometimes consultant and current candidate for Shelby County sheriff, who has been with Herenton in various capacities since the mayor was elected in 1991. French, who was not charged, gave $10,000 to the Atlanta hand-out crew and testified for the government at the trial in 2003.

Consultants, of course, are central players in Tennessee Waltz. Memphian Tim Willis worked undercover for the FBI to net John Ford and paid the former senator $10,000 in cash. Ford was a consultant for Johnson Controls to help them get a state contract with a medical facility in Chattanooga. Ford was also a consultant to TennCare contractors.

Another Memphis connection to Campbell is Dewey Clark, a Memphis native who worked in Campbell’s campaign in 1993 and lived in Campbell’s basement apartment for six years while working as a mayoral “special assistant,” according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Clark fell out with Campbell and has accused him of taking bribes.

The seven-year duration of the Campbell investigation suggests Tennessee Waltz is far from over. After some Atlanta defendants were sentenced in 2003, the Journal-Constitution, citing defense attorneys, published a story saying the City Hall investigation was about to wrap up and Campbell was “seemingly in the clear.” He wasn’t. The feds take their time in high-profile, racially charged cases. It ain’t over until it’s over.

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