One of the most overused clichés in American journalism borrows from that moment in the film Casablanca when the friendly Vichy French inspector played by Claude Rains "discovers" gambling going on in a club run expressly for that purpose by the Humphrey Bogart character.
"I'm shocked, shocked!" declares Rains, who orders the place padlocked -- but not before cashing in his own chips at the payout window.
Something like that scenario is playing out in Memphis and Shelby County this week at various governmental levels, where there is no dearth of candidates for the roles of either the inspector or Rick. Everybody professes to be shocked, and everybody wants an investigation: Just how could a contract mandating that state funds supplied to build a multi-purpose transportation facility for public use have been diverted instead to the construction of a parking garage that would enrich only the Grizzlies ownership and management, already well sated with open-and-aboveboard concessions?
Such is the recent disclosure that has occasioned special meetings by both City Council and County Commission, along with much head-shaking and calling for further investigation by the district attorney general's office and whoever else can apply the strong arm of the law.
The fact remains that the garage deal is only one small portion of various under-the-table contractual changes made during the planning, funding, and construction of what would become the FedExForum, an arena which may be excellent in its own right but which is public only in the sense that members of the public are allowed to go into the place and leave portions of their hard-earned cash for the enrichment of -- yeah, you guessed it, the Grizzlies. Other terms of the contract with the city and county expressly forbid other publicly funded arenas from operating in competition with the Forum, including the still-serviceable Coliseum and 15-year-old Pyramid, which the taxpayers are still in hock for to the tune of something like $30 million. Maybe the Bass Pro Shop people can take us off the, er, hook, but that deal has yet to be finalized.
The fact further remains that some -- perhaps most -- of the public officials now lamenting the loudest knew (or should have known) that the deal attracting the NBA to Memphis was one-sided. They knew, or should have known, that various contractual understandings were being breached in only one direction -- in the interests of HOOPS, the coverall organization managing the Grizzlies' interests.
Most of our officials (Commissioners John Willingham and Walter Bailey are two of the honorable exceptions) knew We the People were going to take a screwing. But they figured this Faustian bargain was desired by a public eager to harbor a big-league sports franchise. Perhaps they were right; without the referendum that should have been held back then, we'll never know.
The only thing shocking about the current state of affairs is that it took so long for so many people to start hollering about it.