The Memphis Week That Was ...

The Waltz Body Count, Griz, Heisley, Hill and Huck, and a Wild Duck.

| January 11, 2008
Griz owner Michael Heisley
Griz owner Michael Heisley
NOTE TO READERS: "Memphis Week That Was" will be a regular Friday web feature on MemphisFlyer.com. I see it as a collection of reporter's notes, opinions, and afterthoughts about interesting events that happened during the previous week. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

-- John Branston (branston@memphisflyer.com)

So what is the body count for Operation Tennessee Waltz?

United States Attorney David Kustoff says Michael Hooks Jr., was number 12, if, like Kustoff, you're keeping score, and most Memphis reporters dutifully repeated this line.

But Hooks' attorney, Glen Reid, disagrees. "This had nothing to do with his service as a public official and nothing whatsoever to do with Tennessee Waltz," said Reid, a former federal prosecutor familiar with the vanities and body-count propensities of various United States attorneys in Tennessee over the last 30 years.

Long ago, Reid was a colleague of Tim DiScenza, the lead prosecutor in the Tennessee Waltz cases. DiScenza is not a head-counter. He just does his job. And Reid is not inclined to press the issue beyond what he told the media Thursday after Hooks made his guilty plea.

But it could be important to Hooks whether he is or is not considered a Tennessee Waltz casualty. Reid's larger point was that Hooks did not take bribes in his capacity as a public official (he was on the school board) but as a private citizen.

"His daddy was trying to help him the old Memphis way and that got him in trouble," said Reid.

Hooks will be sentenced on April 9th by Judge Daniel Breen, who has presided over some of the Tennessee Waltz cases. If Breen agrees with Reid, then Hooks could get six months or less or even probation.

I'm guessing that Breen will go easy on Hooks. It's a stretch to compare Hooks' crime with those of state legislators Roscoe Dixon and John Ford, who were caught on tape taking money from FBI agents posing as corrupt businessmen. Hooks, on the other hand, got money -- probably less than $5,000 or even $3,000 -- from a padded invoice to Juvenile Court. Not the same at all.

I disagree, however, with Reid's statement that Hooks "has no information about anybody else whatsoever" that might interest the FBI and prosecutors. If that were true, then Hooks wouldn't have been worth a dime as a consultant. On the contrary, he was politically connected, from an influential family, young and outgoing, and hung around with a flashy crowd in local movies and on the E-Cycle yacht in Florida.

He's got plenty of information, as do all of the defendants who were indisputably part of Tennessee Waltz. The only question is how hard prosecutors will press to get it out of them and what, if anything, they will do with it. Ward Crutchfield, Hooks, Kathryn Bowers, and Tim Willis have not been sentenced, and John Ford faces another trial. Tennessee Waltz isn't over, especially if you apply Kustoff's broad definition.

Computer recycling was the topic of a feature on one of the national evening news programs this week. Used computers are sent overseas, where workers earning pennies an hour break them down for salvage. Sound familiar? This is pretty much the business plan for E-Cycle Management, which was said to be unfeasible many times by the FBI agents who posed as corrupt businessman.

The Flyer has a roomful of electronic junk we would gladly get rid of for pennies on the dollars.

Michael Hooks Jr. was indicted in 2006 for something he did in 2001. That should give pause to any public official who thinks that he or she is out of the woods because there have not been any federal indictments in a while.

It's the nature of federal investigations that they take a long time to connect the dots. One of the reasons prosecutors have a "perfect score," as some boosterish reporters like to say, is that they are patient and meticulous.

Another cause for concern: the comparatively small amount of money involved in the Hooks case. If prosecutors will make a case over illegal payments of $1,500, $300, and $200, what about the supply side in Tennessee Waltz and Main Street Sweeper? What will happen to John Ford's $400,000 clients at United American Health Care and Doral Dental? Or billboard owner William Thomas, who hired corrupt lobbyist Joe Cooper? Or the people Cooper says routinely sprang for tickets, airplanes, meals, houses, and other favors for members of the Memphis City Council? Or the recipients of the no-bid contracts from the city of Memphis who were friends and business associates of Mayor Herenton, and the contractors who dealt with Memphis City Schools before the alarms went off? There is still much more to come.

Blaming Michael Heisley for some of the Grizzlies attendance woes, as Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins did this week, makes no sense. Heisley could stand at the turnstiles every home game and pass out free hot dogs and it wouldn't boost long-term attendance by one percent.

Calkins told me via email that he thinks Heisley may not be able to draw fans but he can drive supporters away, but I'm still not convinced. Nobody goes to a game or stays away to spite the owner or to show affection for him. "I Don't Like Mike" is a lame alibi.

I think sports reporters in Memphis are tip-toeing around an unpleasant big story. The Grizzlies are averaging 12,970 fans per game this season, fourth lowest in the NBA. The first year in FedExForum (2004-2005), the Griz averaged 16,862. The next season, 15,793. Last year, 14,654.

Most troubling, the financing projections for FedExForum were based on average attendance of 14,900 fans, an average ticket price of $48, with a 3 percent annual increase. If the Grizzlies continue to fall 2000-per-game short of their attendance projections, then sooner or later the arena financing plan is broken.

What’s really killing the Grizzlies? Three things: losing, the economy, and the University of Memphis Tigers. Over the last five seasons, the Grizzlies’ win total has been 50, 45, 49, 22, and 10 so far this season. Memphis is probably in a recession already, and the stock of FedEx, First Horizon, and Regions are all at or near five-year lows.

The $100 or more that it costs for a pair of decent tickets and concessions at a game is much more than the monthly sting from $3 gas versus $2 gas. Finally, the Tigers are unbeaten and sell out every game.

Ironically, when FedExForum was in the planning stage, UM was considered a throw-in if they could be convinced to leave The Pyramid. There were predictions that the team might draw 12,000 per game. Instead the positions of the Grizzlies and Tigers are reversed.

An “all-Arkansas” presidential election in 2008? In other words, could Mike Huckabee and Hillary Clinton (admittedly not exactly an Arkansan any more) each win their parties' nomination? Max Brantley, the veteran editor and political correspondent for the Arkansas Times, says there is a "good chance."

Huckabee, the newspaper's nemesis, is "racing to the bottom but he’s racing slower than anyone else" on the GOP side, he says. For on-the-scene reporting and analysis, of course, don't miss the dispatches from my colleague Jackson Baker, the only Memphis reporter, so far as we know, who was on the job in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Duck goes global. From duck hunter, fishing guide, and favorite son Jack Branston comes word of a duck migrating from Japan to Mississippi. On January 3rd, a hunter killed a Japanese pintail near Ruleville. The duck was banded, it turns out, in Niigata, Japan, in 2000. It is believed to be the first Japanese duck harvested in the Mississippi flyway. For details, see duckhunters.net.

Correction: A few weeks ago I mistakenly wrote in City Beat that Mayor Herenton got 44 percent of the vote in the October election. As challenger Carol Chumney reminded me, Herenton got a shade over 42 percent. The number was corrected on line, but not in the print paper as I promised. I regret the error and my forgetfulness.

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