Politics » Politics Feature

THE DIXON TRIAL: Holding the Bag Man

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Newly empanelled jurors in the Roscoe Dixon trial heard opening statements from both the prosecution and the defense on Wednesday. And, by virtue of digitalized audio and video recordings (which chief prosecutor Tim DiScenza kept calling “tapes,” despite himself), they also got an eyeful and earful of how influence peddling works in the state legislature.

Dixon himself summed it all up on an undercover FBI video that got both a morning and an afternoon showing. The former state senator and Tennessee Waltz indictee was shown sitting at a desk, via a camera concealed in FBI informant Tim Willis’ briefcase, as he discoursed back in 2003, Godfather-style, to Willis and accused bag man Barry Myers about how to get a children’s dental clinic accredited as a TennCare provider.

“Remember this,” the grainy black-and-white image of a shirt-sleeved Dixon says. “This is a fight over money, and who gets it.”

The clinic in question was a legitimate chain operation, headquartered in Colorado, which had hired Willis to lobby for it in Nashville. According to the prosecution, Dixon and Myers, his protégé and factotum, got wind of Willis’ new client and asked him if there was money in it for them – meaning, in legislative shorthand, they were offering their influence on behalf of the company. For a price.

Willis had already run afoul of the law by submitting bogus invoices as a consultant to the Juvenile Court Clerk’s office, and the FBI had turned him. Hence the briefcase camera -- as well as a backup audio wire worn on the person of Willis, now a full-time Bureau informant.

And hence, too, the beginnings of the Tennessee Waltz scandal, as the FBI. using the co-opted (and well-compensated) Willis as their stalking horse, adjudged Dixon and Myers as “predicated” – meaning, in FBI jargon, predisposed toward corruption and thereby eligible to be targeted in a sting.

Even before the FBI bothered to set up its sting through the now infamous sham computer outfit E-Cycle Management, they were getting a laundry list of other possible “predicates” from their electronic surveillance of Dixon and Myers. Willis was told that Kathyn Bowers, later a state senator and then a member of the House of Representatives, would help on the TennCare matter and would need a cut. (One of the prosecution videos shown in court documented a car trip made by Willis and the unwitting Myers to deliver a cash-stuffed envelope to Bowers.)

John Ford, he of myriad other scandals (including, later on, the Tennessee Waltz affair itself), was suggested by Dixon as a possible helping hand on getting the dental operation accredited, but Willis objected, on behalf of his clients, that state Senator Ford was “too pushy.”

Back there in 2003, Myers talked up a $10,000 total budget and kept nominating House Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry of Memphis, among others, as someone who would cooperate and needed a cut. DeBerry, though, was not mentioned on follow-up recordings and apparently never got involved.

Others whose names got dropped were Memphis businessman Karl Schledwitz (as the owner of property coveted by the dental clinic and as a friend of Governor Phil Bredesen), mega-developer Ron Belz, and influential Shelby County developer Jackie Welch. None of these were mentioned as potential partners in fraud; the principals were just feeling their oats and bragging about their big-time connections.

Amazingly, Myers made frequent mention of how he and Dixon (who, at this early period, anyhow, left it to Myers to actually collect the FBI cash doled out by Willis) needed to avoid anything so indiscreet as “that Rickey Peete shit,” alluding to the city councilman’s conviction back in the ‘80s for collecting a developer’s under-the-table cash – a transaction duly recorded on tape.

But there they are, in full range of Willis’s briefcase camera, watching as Willis heaps hundred dollar bills on a table -- $4,000 in all, money which Myers, a Tennessee Waltz indictee and a cooperating government witness himself, said was later split between himself and Dixon, his mentor.

And that, says the government, was how the Tennessee Waltz, which later came to involve several other state government figures, got started.

A chastened Myers was called to the stand Wednesday to corroborate the government’s account. Why was he doing it?

“Because it’s the right thing to do and I want to correct a wrong that’s been done in my life. I made a mistake,” Myers managed in a reasonable facsimile of sincerity.

Both he and interrogator DiScenza made a point of saying that no deal was involved in the testimony of Myers, who has pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing.

Chief defense attorney Coleman Garrett had made a vigorous, even compelling opening argument that E-Cycle, not the accused, had been involved in a criminal enterprise, entrapping innocent men., “Senator Dixon ought to be suing the government for malicious prosecution,” Garrett said.

But the defense attorney’s later cross-examination of FBI agent Brian Burns, who had been the first prosecution witness, seemed to meander aimlessly and never managed to do much damage to the government’s account of things.

Both sides will go again bright and early Thursday morning. Myers was still on the stand at quitting time Wednesday and, as the government’s key witness, will surely be the occasion for a vigorous cross-examination by Garrett.

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