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Getting It Back Together

Former Juvenile Court clerk Shep Wilbun, freshly released from legal liability, talks about his ordeal -- and his future prospects.

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Shepperson A. Wilbun Jr. -- or "Shep," as he is known both professionally and personally -- was until recently under indictment for "official misconduct" in the office of Juvenile Court clerk, a job he was appointed to in late 2000 and lost in the election of 2002.

The charges against Wilbun were formally dropped just last month by special prosecutor John Overton, who issued a simple statement of dismissal: "After reviewing all facts from the State and Defense, we all feel that a jury in this matter would most likely find that county policy was violated, but that the facts of the case may not rise to a crime."

The finding ended Wilbun's long-standing legal jeopardy, which essentially revolved around the misdeeds, admitted and suspected, of former employee Darryl Catron, who has pleaded guilty to embezzlement and awaits final sentencing. It also restored Wilbun's hopes of reviving his public career, perhaps as soon as next year's election.

Wilbun recently approached the Flyer, asking for an opportunity to tell his side of a tale that has largely remained murky, its details vague and embedded in the public mind, fairly or unfairly, with a year's worth of generalized political scandal, both locally and statewide.

As his testimony makes clear, Wilbun sees himself not as a perp but as a political victim.

First, the backstory: One of the more intriguing and enigmatic political personalities on the Memphis scene for almost two decades, Wilbun is the son of a trailblazing African-American Circuit Court judge. A holder of degrees from Dartmouth and M.I.T., trained in architecture and urban planning, and a sometime developer, the younger Wilbun never quite seemed cast from the same mold as his political running mates -- rough-and-tumble North Memphians like Rickey Peete and Ulysses Jones.

When city councilman Peete took a fall in 1989 on an extortion conviction, Wilbun was named by the council as his replacement. Almost immediately he saw himself as mayoral material, potentially the city's first African-American chief executive. He helped hatch the 1991 "People's Convention" that was the first organized effort at selecting a consensus black standard-bearer to challenge then incumbent Mayor Dick Hackett.

Somewhat to his chagrin, Wilbun was one-upped at his own convention by Willie Herenton, who had just left his Memphis school superintendent's job under fire and was energized both by his innate political skills and by a desire for vindication. Herenton won the endorsement that Wilbun had coveted and out-maneuvered would-be kingmaker Harold Ford Sr. at a black "summit" organized by the then congressman. Herenton went on to beat Hackett with Ford's somewhat forced support.

Wilbun could only watch as the city's new order declared itself. Meanwhile, he got himself elected to the Shelby County Commission in 1994 and kept looking for a broader power niche -- or, as he preferred to see it, an opportunity to employ his unique skills and vision. He thought he had it when Herenton nominated him as director of Housing and Community Development in 1996, but the mayor jerked that rug out from under him, withdrawing the nomination in the face of revelations that Wilbun had a delinquent loan with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Injury became insult when Herenton later made published remarks that seemed to mock Wilbun. Partly as a reflex action, the aggrieved commissioner launched a campaign for mayor in 1999 and finished in single-digit percentage points, far behind winner Herenton in a multicandidate field. The next year he thought he had a chance at getting the Democratic nomination for the open position of county register but was aced out by white Democrat John Freeman. This new frustration prompted Wilbun to threaten open rebellion against the party establishment, just then trying to marshal its resources behind the presidential candidacy of native Tennessean Al Gore. Ultimately, he was brought back in line, but he kept looking for another chance to strike out on his own turf.

He found it at the tag end of 2000, when longtime Juvenile Court clerk Bob Martin took leave of his job, and Wilbun and his commission mates were charged with naming a successor. In effect, Wilbun and his five fellow Democrats on the commission worked out a trade whereby Republican member Clair VanderSchaaf was induced to desert the GOP majority consensus to support homebuilder Tom Moss for the commission, rather than the expected winner, David Lillard. Moss then lined up with the Democrats to select Wilbun as Juvenile Court clerk instead of Martin's deputy Steve Stamson.

Wilbun had done the out-maneuvering this time and had finally won the fiefdom he'd yearned for. His victory, though, was at the cost of lingering animosity both among the county's Republicans, who swore to unseat him at the next election, and among what the new clerk came to call the "Juvenile Court establishment," those still loyal to longtime judge Kenneth Turner, to the departed Martin, and to Stamson, who remained for a while as Wilbun's nominal deputy, then resigned and mounted a race against Wilbun in 2002.

In the stretch-run of that race, it became known that Wilbun was under investigation by a grand jury for various supposed irregularities involving such matters as his office's travel expenses and his billing procedures. Undoubtedly, the circumstance contributed to his narrow loss to Stamson. His indictment came shortly thereafter, limited largely to a sensational charge that Catron had committed an act of blatant harassment against a female employee, one that allegedly involved Wilbun's complicity in payoffs to the victim.

In the end, the charges were dropped against Wilbun, and Catron was convicted only of a prior embezzlement charge.

What follows are abridgements and excerpts of Wilbun's lengthy conversation with the Flyer concerning his ordeal. We make no effort to adjudge the rights and wrongs of the matter but regard his testimony as an ex parte contribution to and possible clarification of the historical record.

What are some of Wilbun's chief regrets about the recent past?

"When I was indicted, I was on TV for 10 straight days. They didn't even use a good picture of me, and there were many, from the time I was a city councilman and a county commissioner. They used my mugshot. I thought in America that you were innocent until proven guilty. I grew up in a household with a dad who was a judge who taught me to put your trust in the system."

Does he now feel exonerated?

"The charges were dropped. My position is very simple. This case should never have happened. I did not commit a crime. None of my actions rose to the level of a crime. I said all along that I didn't do anything that was criminal, and I'm happy after three and a half years that John Overton agreed."

Why does he think he was charged?

"Anger and political revenge. It's clear that when you challenge the system, as I did at Juvenile Court, stepping on the toes of the establishment, you invite the politics of personal destruction. Leveling legal charges is a way that is done. I wasn't the first person and I won't be the last person this has happened to."

Who was responsible for targeting him?

"I won't name names. Put the pieces together. Those who have been there for 40 years and aligned with the administration felt threatened. They determined that they were going to punish me for embarrassing them.

"[Former clerk] Bob Martin wrote something saying he was going to 'zip the Wilbun lip.' You can ask him what he meant by that. [A newspaper columnist] wrote that the judge [Kenneth Turner] and the administration felt I shouldn't have been there, they didn't like the way I got there, they felt we were 'politicizing' everything and overstepping our bounds. And all I was doing was getting money out to those who deserved it." (That reference is to Wilbun's controversial Funds for Families program, designed to search out the overlooked recipients of child support funds. Critics charged the program was politically inspired and a boondoggle that unloaded the money on imposters.)

"The fact of the matter is, the moneys got to the right people; the moneys got to the people they were supposed to get to. There was much made about the procedures, the process, the fact that we didn't double-identify folks [require two pieces of identification]. Well, all of the procedures that were put in place for the program were procedures we put in place ourselves. I knew what my own procedures were, and I knew what needed to be done. I was not going to let bureaucratic procedures prevent me from getting the moneys to the proper folks who had not received them previously. A real effort had not been made to identify these folks and get the money to them."

(Wilbun maintains he was sabotaged as well by holdovers from the former clerk's regime.)

"In spite of that, we modernized the office. We took 12,000 warrants and reduced them. That never got mentioned in the campaign because of that other stuff. How much money is too much money for people who should have gotten it 30 years ago? We set out to repair their lives."

Wilbun's eventual legal difficulty essentially arose from problems caused by deputy administrator Darryl Catron, of whom he says he began an investigation, focusing initially on Catron's improper use of office funds.

"What happened was that I requested from the county attorney's office the amount of county money owed by Catron. We sought out the county attorney. I could have done it myself [calculated the amounts], but that would have been suspect. I wanted to be advised about the reimbursement so that then further disciplinary action might be in order."

Wilbun, however, asked Kathryn Kirk, an employee of the county attorney's office and not county attorney Donnie Wilson directly, because he regarded Wilson, an African-American Republican, as an adjunct to the administration of then county mayor Jim Rout, who was himself overfriendly to the Juvenile Court "establishment." Put simply:

"I knew I couldn't trust the county attorney's office to give me the correct information. I won't get into the relationship between Stamson and Jim Rout and the fact that Donnie Wilson worked for Rout. I won't go there. But I will tell you this, that Jim Rout went to a Republican fund-raiser and told them that Shep Wilbun should never have gotten in when I was appointed. How much of what we tell the administration is coming back to be used against us? In that climate, how much do you tell the administration because the administration is working with your opponent?"

But even Wilbun's more indirect inquiries through Kirk were discovered, a circumstance that led up to his legal predicament.

"That information was leaked to my political opponents, then they tried to utilize that to achieve the destruction of my credibility. Trying to do what was right led to its being known there was a problem in my office."

Wilbun insists that he had not only launched the investigation of Catron but discharged the troublesome employee in a timely manner.

"Catron was removed in November of 2001, when I discovered that besides problems relevant to his misuse of credit cards, there were other issues relating to alleged misconduct."

One of those other issues turned out to be a case of possible sexual harassment, in which Catron was accused of what was somewhat euphemistically referred to as "inappropriate touching" of a female employee in the clerk's office basement.

"I was there when the young lady ran out of the office. I tried to stop her, to ask what was going on. Then I received the phone call from her dad. He said, 'I need to come down there and talk to you about it.'"

The father had a blunt tale to relate.

"The charge was that he [Catron] put his hand under her clothes and put his hand in her underwear. He vehemently denied it. This was in the basement where, quite frankly, the only two people there were -- he and she. She never gave any testimony at all; her father would not let her. He spoke for her."

Wilbun had known the father, a union official, for some years, and the daughter had, in fact, worked in a couple of his electoral campaigns.

"I gave [the father] the benefit of the doubt because I couldn't conceive of a circumstance where this kind of fabrication could be generated. There was no proof, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt that something had transpired."

That led, says Wilbun, to the rudiments of the arrangement that was ultimately worked out and which would lead to his own indictment. First, he set out to deal with his errant employee via accepted rules of due process.

"Catron was suspended with pay pending an investigation. I began the process, and, as it happened, 30 days later he was fired. He was relieved of duty for failure to observe proper judgment about a number of things. He was entitled to the presumption of innocence. If anybody ought to respect that, it's me."

Next, the bottom line of a settlement with the girl and her father. As part of it, Catron agreed to supply funding for counseling, and Williams served as conduit for the transaction.

"The whole settlement process took place in the lawyer's office. It was between the lawyer [Mark Allen], the father, and myself. Calvin [Williams] gave her some funds from Catron, not from the office. No taxpayer moneys were used in any way for her to have counseling dollars. The argument was that I kept Catron on the payroll for 30 days so he could pay her. I didn't keep anybody on to get somebody paid. I kept him on the payroll until I had clear evidence that something was amiss. I needed to get the facts, to see if there was validity to the charge."

The terms were those proposed by the victim's father, Wilbun says.

"He asked three things. One, he didn't want to press charges; that would embarrass his daughter. The so-called cover-up didn't emanate with me. He's the one who didn't want this to be made public, not file official charges. I tried to explain what the procedures were, and he said, 'Look, I'm a union rep, I know what the procedures are.' Two, he said, 'I want my daughter made whole in terms of counseling. Three, I want her to be able to be off work to get that counseling.' And that's where the charges of 'misconduct' come from -- that we paid her for six weeks for not coming to work. But she was a 'temp;' she had no medical benefits or sick leave coming. And based on what had happened to her, my moral position was that her inability to come to work was not of her own cause."

The go-between for the settlement, also indicted, was then County Commission administrator Calvin Williams, who would later resign and face indictment for his own independent legal problems, in addition to those involved in the harassment case. It was also Williams who had brokered the commission horse-trading that had led to Wilbun's appointment as clerk. That fact may have required some quid pro quos later on, but Wilbun accounts for things otherwise.

"Calvin was a clerk in my dad's court. I have known Calvin going back to that period of time, in the late 1980s. And then I ended up serving with Calvin on the County Commission. I placed some stock, perhaps more than I should have, in his opinions and recommendations. He suggested that I hire Darryl; I did, which, in retrospect, I probably should not have. You never know how things are going to turn out. In retrospect, that's probably not a good hire."

But the former clerk denies the frequently reported statement that Catron was his main aide.

"Catron was not my right-hand man. I kept Steve Stamson on for a while, remember. He stayed until February, when it became clear to me there was some undermining of my administration going on, on his behalf and on behalf of the court. Catron had been the number three guy. Clearly, when number two leaves, then obviously you've got one [Wilbun] and three, and three, by default, becomes two. I never brought him on to be the deputy administrator. I subsequently had two other folks who were at number two -- James Sellers, who got in trouble with me, and Matt Kuhn. [Kuhn, now chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party, is the son of current county attorney Brian Kuhn.]

"I never intended for Catron to be number two. He took advantage. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in January of 2001, and it was something I had to deal with. I don't want it to be an excuse, but through April 2001 I was in and out a lot. Catron had more control than would otherwise have been the case."

And Catron was a Republican.

"I knew that he had worked for Bob Patterson, he had been prominent in the Republican Party, and I was determined to put together a progressive, diverse office, with Republicans, Democrats, blacks, whites, young, old, etc. I looked to Calvin for Republican input.

"I acknowledge that Catron had more responsibility and authority than he should have, and he abused it."

But Catron wasn't the only questionable personality involved with the office during Wilbun's tenure as Juvenile Court clerk. Two figures involved in this year's Tennessee Waltz scandal -- defendant Barry Myers and government informant Tim Willis -- were at one time or another on staff. Wilbun says he didn't know them well at all before they came aboard.

"They [Myers, Willis, Catron] were all fraternity brothers. Calvin led to Catron, and Catron sort of led to Barry and Tim Willis. Barry was obviously well connected with Roscoe [former state senator Roscoe Dixon, also a Tennessee Waltz indictee] and with the Fords. And so was Tim. And Tim did PR as part of the move to get the Grizzlies here. One would assume he had some knowledge and some diligence."

Willis was later convicted of credit-card fraud in Mississippi and, it was revealed, he had agreed to work as an undercover sting with the FBI on the Tennessee Waltz. That circumstance led to speculation that, in the aftermath of the dropped charges, Wilbun himself might be working undercover.

"I can say categorically that I'm not doing work for anybody. But they [the government] brought me a number of deals. That taught me what a lot of people go through all the time in our legal system. First, they said admit guilt, and I'd be put on probation for a year, then my record would be cleaned. Second, they said if I apologized and made restitution for the amount they claim was paid to the young woman, I would be put on probation, and the charges would be removed from my record after a year. Third, I could just apologize and say I didn't intend to do this, but it happened.

"I did nothing criminal, nothing criminal. Everything I did I did in terms of doing the right thing by the girl, by the office, to minimize the legal liability of the county. There was nothing for me to apologize for and to admit."

As to the allegations that he politicized the office of Juvenile Court clerk through Funds for Families and other programs and that he violated county policy in his procedures, Wilbun answers that, on the first score, his office was political.

"You know, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin was here the other night. I'm sure everybody said that was a great thing. But there's an election in February. I mean, come on! One of the reasons he was here was so he could talk to his constituents about what he's doing. But that doesn't mean this compassion and concern for the folks who came here to talk to him is any less."

And, as for the accusation that he exceeded his authority as clerk in disposing of the Catron matter and in other ways, Wilbun points out that the formerly appointive office had been an elective one for less than 10 years and that its dimensions had not yet been mapped. He cites a precedent.

"Look at what [Shelby County Trustee] Bob Patterson has done, who has for years maintained his own sexual-harassment policy and has argued he has authority to run his own office without going through the county administration and has won on a number of occasions.

"Nobody had ever clarified what real power I had. We maintained that we had all the rights and privileges of every other independent clerk in Shelby County. Therefore, we had the right to run our own office, independent of the court. I was prepared to argue that what we did didn't violate county policy and, even if it did, that doesn't make it a crime.

"I was investigated by seven agencies. They looked at everything in my office. I daresay not too many officials could withstand an investigation by seven agencies and have the only charge be official misconduct and that be a false charge.

"The [former] sheriff [A.C. Gilless] had three sexual harassment cases settled by the county, yet he kept getting elected. There was no penalty for him. There are two clerks right now with harassment cases settled by the county. [Criminal Court clerk] Bill Key and [Probate Court clerk] Chris Thomas. The county paid the money, in actual taxpayer dollars. Elected officials committed the acts. Why isn't that official misconduct, when you have a settlement in this case and taxpayer dollars were actually paid out?"

What's done is done, and Wilbun wants to look ahead to future challenges he isn't quite ready to specify. But he's not bashful about his credentials.

"Let's be real about it. I've got degrees from two of the world's greatest schools; I've had my own business for 20 years. I'm not bragging, but I've been a councilman. I've been a commissioner. I've been president of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials and treasurer of the National Black Caucus of County Officials. They don't make you treasurer of something if they don't believe there's some integrity there."

So what job is Wilbun thinking about? The same one left behind in 2002? Or another public office?

"I haven't quite determined, but I expect I'll have an announcement on that. I expect there's a demand for the kinds of things I can do as an officeholder. I'm no longer driven by an obsession. I once thought I could bring some things to bear in terms of leading this city, but I'm no longer driven to have to do that. There are a lot of ways I can serve, a lot of things I can do to improve the quality of life for folks. Whether it's mayor, Juvenile Court clerk, or whatever, I'm going to continue to serve people. And it's the public that determines whether and how I'm going to do that."

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