A Plodder Stumbles

Mayor A C Wharton feels the sting of his old friend Roscoe Dixon’s indictment.


Shelby County mayor A C Wharton didn’t ask Roscoe Dixon if he had any skeletons in his closet when he hired him as assistant chief administrative officer five months ago. After all, Dixon had helped Wharton move into his house and managed his campaign for mayor. They have been friends for 31 years.

Nor did the mayor hesitate or ask for an explanation when he demanded Dixon’s resignation two weeks ago, after Dixon was indicted along with John Ford and four other current and former state legislators in Operation Tennessee Waltz.

The ripple effect of the indictment of “Uncle John” on U.S. representative Harold Ford Jr.’s Senate campaign has drawn a lot of media attention, but what does Dixon’s indictment say about him and Wharton? Dixon is charged with extorting $9,500 from the FBI’s sham company E-Cycle Management in 2004, his last year in the Tennessee Senate. He served a combined 22 years in the Senate and House. His record was scandal-free but hardly distinguished. Tellingly, in the Tennessee Blue Book he listed his occupation as “consultant.” The only other self-described consultant among the 33 senators: John Ford.

“The biggest negative when I hired Roscoe was that for the first time in his life he was going to have a real job,” Wharton said in an interview Monday.

Wharton did not do a background check before hiring Dixon but did have someone question lobbyists and other lawmakers about him. The reports, Wharton said, were that Dixon was “not a superstar, just a good old plodder, someone who would just chug along, which was what I needed in that position.” The FBI knew better. Undercover agents had already made payoffs to Dixon through his bag man, Barry Myers, several months before Wharton hired Dixon. But the stakes were too high for anyone to tell the mayor.

Wharton, formerly a criminal defense attorney, said he had “a pretty good inkling that something was going to happen two weeks before it did” from some of his old colleagues. But he did not know who would be indicted. He demanded and got Dixon’s resignation the same day he was indicted and has not spoken to him about the case since then.

An in-house investigation has so far determined that Dixon “did absolutely no business for E-Cycle with county government,” Wharton said. Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks, while admitting no wrongdoing, has acknowledged helping E-Cycle make a belated bid for county business earlier this year after Dixon was aboard. The indictment says Dixon and Myers conspired to help E-Cycle “beginning on or about July 30, 2004 and continuing thereafter until on or about May 20, 2005.”

As portrayed in the indictment, Dixon lives down to his reputation. He insists that his payments go through Myers. He files a bill to benefit E-Cycle in January 2004, but the details aren’t right so he “indicated to an individual that he wished to have faxed to his office the bill which was desired by E-Cycle.” When E-Cycle asks to have the bill withdrawn in March, Dixon doesn’t get that right either, and he has to be asked “what E-Cycle was paying him for” before dutifully pulling the bill a week later.

Such is the man Wharton hired nine months later for a job paying $101,000 a year.

Between greeting constituents and drinking his breakfast orange juice at a Burger King this week, Wharton wondered how deeply the corruption runs.

“I just came out of a grueling session with the legislature,” he said. “Sometimes when I was talking one-on-one it just seemed like they weren’t hearing, like there was an impenetrable wall between the two of us. I kept wondering, What am I missing here? I’m not saying they did not pass my bill because they were on the take. I am just saying this kind of thing will cause people to wonder if legislation passed that would not have passed or if there were good bills that should have passed that did not.”

A cloud hangs over the Shelby County Commission as well, with the possible double-whammy of more Tennessee Waltz indictments and an upcoming tell-all book by former chief administrator Calvin Williams.

Asked about that, Wharton — who is unflappable and about as impossible not to like as a politician can be — glanced up at a passing airplane and responded with a vintage Whartonism. “There’s a headwind, but sometimes that’s good because it allows you to get your plane up. Maybe we will have to work harder now. It may be a blessing in disguise.”

He expects to have a certified tax rate and budget by July 1st, right on schedule.


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