No division of local government, save possibly the police department, is more ripe for corruption than the agencies that deal with our cars.
Last week, eight employees of the Shelby County Clerk's office were indicted for bribery involving motor vehicle registrations, giving new meaning to "customer service."
I wasn't able to muster one-tenth as much outrage over this betrayal of the public trust as I did the last time I couldn't get one of my clunker cars through the inspection station after waiting in a long line. Now that was an outrage. Cost me several hours and a couple hundred bucks, more than once.
I confess that I would gladly have paid an inspector $20 to overlook the balky windshield wipers ("really, they usually work"), faulty emergency brake (covered up, I think, by holding my right foot on the brake and the accelerator at the same time), broken tail-light lens (a red plastic reflector and some duct tape did the job and won the grudging admiration of the inspector), and the dreaded rod-up-the-tailpipe emissions test (introducing thousands of Memphis car owners to the term "O-2 sensor").
I didn't bribe an inspector, but I sure tried to fool them. And I suspect I may have enriched one or two who got a tip from the garage conveniently located right across the street from the downtown inspection station on Washington, where I got that emissions problem fixed for about $230.
What's worse, only Memphis residents have to go through inspection. Those living in Shelby County outside of Memphis or in Mississippi are exempt, even though they use the same roads and pollute the same air. And scofflaws drive some of the most smoke-belching clunkers around and don't bother registering them at all — or bribe someone to register them. Bad laws make bad practice.
Selling a used car is another opportunity for petty crime. Say, hypothetically of course, I sell my neighbor my old car for $5,000. On the back of the title, he records the sale price as $3,000, which is close enough to the Edmonds or Kelley blue book value to satisfy the clerk's office. It's no skin off my nose, and the buyer saves a few hundred bucks in taxes. Let's assume that employees in the clerk's office see this stuff go on every day. It's not hard to see how a culture of "favors" could take root.
Finally, there's the issue of inflating a misdemeanor charge to a felony in order to squeeze someone to squeal on someone else such as Councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Ware, who allegedly made three bribes going back to January 2007. Ware was not indicted. If she is, it will raise two questions: Was she performing official duties and therefore subject to removal from the council? And why prosecute the supply side in the clerk's office scandal but not in John Ford's TennCare trial or in the culture of corruption in the state legislature that spawned the Tennessee Waltz investigation?
The ideal clerk is a nearly invisible public servant. Attorney Dan Norwood, who has filed several public-interest lawsuits over the years, says the late Shelby County clerk Richard "Sonny" Mashburn "was the epitome of the old-time politician who would do everything he could for you within the law. Somewhere, somebody lost sight of that line."
Good service can propel a clerk to greater political heights. Thirty years ago, the county clerk was Dick Hackett. When the state legislature passed a law allowing motorists to renew their car tags by mail or at satellite offices without having to make a trip downtown, Hackett implemented that change and ensured honesty and efficiency by using secret shoppers to make unannounced visits.
The resulting name recognition, experience, and reputation were essential to Hackett's successful mayoral campaign in 1982 — a special election that would not have happened without the lawsuit by Dan Norwood "on behalf of the citizens of Memphis."