Whether it’s a political dispute with legal overtones or a legal issue with political overtones, a pending governmental ethics case in Shelby County might soon overrun its local jurisdictional bounds and become a state issue.
Early in the year County Commissioner Terry Roland, an outspoken Republican from Millington, began levying conflict-of-interest charges against two Democratic colleagues — Sidney Chism and Melvin Burgess.
Chism, a former Teamster leader who served a brief appointive term in the state Senate, was accused both of voting to approve county funding that benefited a day care center he owned and of failing to disclose his financial interest. Burgess, an auditor for the former Memphis City Schools who holds a similar position with the new Unified School System, was charged similarly.
In both cases, Roland cited a 2009 ethics ordinance passed by the County Commission. Essentially it requires commissioners who might derive benefit from county funding to disclose the nature of their involvement and to recuse themselves from voting if the benefit is direct.
Commissioners who were supporting the request of County Mayor Mark Luttrell, a Republican, for increases in the county budget and tax rate made it clear that they regarded the charges by Roland, a vehement opponent of Luttrell’s request, as amounting to a political ploy designed to invalidate two likely votes for the proposed increases.
Roland insisted he was merely concerned about what he saw as legal breaches.
Burgess declared publicly he would not submit to Roland’s “bullying” and argued — successfully, in the view of County Attorney Kelly Rayne — that his current employment was merely a continuation of the MCS position he held before being elected and therefore not covered by the 2009 ethics ordinance.
He would vote for both budget and tax rate, though he made a point of prefacing each of his separate votes on either matter with a disclosure of his employment circumstances.
Chism’s case was, in Rayne’s judgment, not so clear-cut. So she hired a special counsel, Brian Faughnan, to present the case before an Ethics Commission previously appointed by the mayor and ratified by the County Commission in line with the ethics ordinance.
This is the first case to be considered by the Commission, which is made up of both lawyers and lay members.
Meanwhile, Chism abstained on voting for the county tax rate until the last reading, by which time the Unified School System board had decided against continuing the “wraparound” funding (for medical and dental check-ups and free lunches and other supportive services) that had been made available to a number of day care centers, including Chism’s.
That fact enabled Chism to vote for the final tax rate this year, but it did not discharge any potential breaches of the ethics ordinance — in particular, regarding the disclosure requirement — for his previous years on the County Commission.
The Ethics Commission has had two meetings. Ricky Wilkins, an attorney hired by Chism at his own expense, has denied the applicability of the 2009 ordinance in Chism’s case, arguing that any benefit to Chism’s day care from county funding was only indirect. Faughnan has disagreed, but, perhaps more importantly, has invoked state law, which forbids public officials from profiting, either directly or indirectly, from their votes.
The Ethics Commission has asked both sides for briefs and has scheduled a meeting for later this month at which it will presumably render its judgment. It can dismiss the charges or uphold them by means of a formal reprimand or a recommendation to the County Commission to pursue censure. Technically, too, the Ethics Commission could request stronger legal action by the District Attorney General.
And, if Faughnan, whose critics allege he is taking on Kenneth Starr-like dimensions, continues to escalate the case as a violation of state ethics provisions, the whole matter could become the province of the state Ethics Commission and/or the state Attorney General.
However the Chism case gets resolved, it stands to create a possible legal precedent at both the local and state levels, and its effect on the legal and political milieus could be profound at both levels.