White-collar Crime, Then and Now

William B. Tanner had little in common with today's "perp walkers."



The latest addition to the list of American cultural icons is the "perp walk."

That's where the FBI parades a handcuffed corporate executive accused of wrongdoing through a gauntlet of news cameras and reporters. The press gets to shout questions, which the perp walker ignores before ducking into a government car.

White-collar crime sure ain't what it used to be.

William B. Tanner is probably the most famous perp walker in Memphis history. He didn't take a perp walk. He ran a perp marathon, starting with the autumn afternoon in 1983 when the FBI raided his office.

At that time, the William B. Tanner Company was one of the biggest around in the media-placement and advertising business. It occupied a sizable building in Midtown with Tanner's name on top of it, right next to the rooftop racquetball court. Tanner's forte was barter, and he was known as the Sultan of Swap, among other things. He sold his company to Media General for $40 million, which was a big deal in its day.

I wrote several newspaper articles and one long magazine profile of Tanner during that time and got to know him well. The phrases "no comment" and "you'll have to talk to my lawyer" simply were not in his vocabulary. Tanner did his own talking, for better or worse.

I bring this up not for the sake of nostalgia but because I can't help remembering Bill Tanner when I read the daily business stories about Enron, WorldCom, Salomon Smith Barney, Arthur Andersen, and the rest.

Today's corporate creep gets 15 seconds in front of the cameras. Tanner's building was raided by the FBI and locked down as if there were drug dealers or hostages inside.

The Enron and WorldCom pretty boys boo hoo to their Sunday school classes then hide behind their security gates and their lawyers' suits and skirts. Tanner stuck his jaw out and defiantly spoke for himself from the day he was busted.

Merrill Lynch gets fined and Salomon Smith Barney gets a rap on the knuckles with a ruler for letting "star" analysts make $20 million a year while screwing investors out of their retirement accounts. Tanner got 18 months in the slammer for evading taxes that wouldn't pay for an analyst's luxury cars and for making payments to corporations that wouldn't even cover the ante today.

Companies like WorldCom and AOL Time Warner overstate earnings and revenue by billions. Tanner was accused of understating the value of advertising commitments and barter agreements on his books. No hot stock allocations of 1 million shares like Salomon gave WorldCom's Bernard Ebbers, as did, apparently, lots of other brokerage firms. There were not thousands of employees who lost their jobs and savings.

There was no stock-market manipulation, period, because Tanner's company was privately held, not public. If anyone was a loser, it was Media General, which bought Tanner's company without, apparently, checking a single local reference on a man who any number of people could have told them was the sharpest horse trader around.

For three years, the FBI and the United States Attorney's Office spent considerable time and manpower on Tanner. The FBI raided Tanner's building while Tanner was out of town, supposedly to keep him or anyone from destroying files. Then, it notified reporters so that there were plenty of pictures in the newspaper and on television.

Tanner, nothing if not combative, did not know me from Adam's Ox, but he took my phone call to Colorado that night and gave me and my employer at the time, The Commercial Appeal, plenty of fodder for three pages of coverage. As soon as he got back to Memphis, he held a press conference at which he took on all comers and complained long and loud about being treated "like a cheap dope."

Tanner remained accessible and talkative as his case progressed. He was funny and candid, sides most people didn't see. Most of all, he was irrepressible, and he thrived on challenge and adversity. In the old days, he once told me, while selling proprietary drugs in small towns all over the South, he was "just gettin' warmed up after the third or fourth no."

We played racquetball together scores of times before, during, and after the spring day in 1985 when he made his guilty plea and, through his attorney James Neal, asked Judge McRae for leniency. The flamboyant judge listened with barely concealed disdain then hammered Tanner with a four-year prison sentence. Several people in the courtroom gasped, but Tanner didn't flinch. The media pack followed him outside, and every television station in town led with footage of Tanner hugging his crying family. He didn't run, and he didn't hide.

He did 18 months in a federal prison in Montgomery, Alabama. Reliable witnesses say he pretty much had the run of the place, and I don't doubt it. By 1988, it was all behind him, and he built another fortune in outdoor advertising.

A couple of years ago, he was diagonosed with cancer. I heard he was in the hospital, heard he was a goner. I should have known better. A few months ago, I ran into him at a Beach Boys concert in Tunica, rocking away to "Help Me Rhonda" and "Little Deuce Coupe." He had a brush cut, a bright red shirt, and a grin as wide as the Mississippi.

Just gettin' warmed up, I guess.

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