People normally make one of two assumptions about the City Council's member from District 5. In one view, Carol Chumney is a shameless showboat and opportunist, hell-bent on running for mayor in 2007 and heedless of other public officials' feelings -- especially those of her colleagues. In another interpretation, the outspoken first-term council member is a gallant seeker after truth, justice, and good government -- a veritable tribune of the people.
Adherents of both views have grown mightily in the course of the ongoing controversy over Memphis Light, Gas & Water, the giant city-owned utility.
Once again last week, Chumney became the focus of two-way discontent when she protested the decision by a council majority to drop its investigation of issues relating to how MLGW's prepayment last year to the Tennessee Valley Authority was brokered.
Chumney was one of three members to vote against the decision to defer to an ongoing and presumably parallel investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and, potentially, other federal agencies. Voting with Chum-ney were Tom Marshall and Brent Taylor. But in a written statement prepared this week, Chumney includes Marshall, in his role as chairman of the council's Personnel, Intergovernmental, and Annexation Committee, among those she takes to task, either for failure to follow through with the investigation or for efforts to suppress it.
Though she later acknowledged that some of her word usage in the statement -- which appeared briefly on the Flyer Web site Monday and was removed pending an effort to verify its charges -- might have been inappropriate, Chumney stands by the substance of her assertions. In the statement (titled "WHAT THE PUBLIC DOESN'T KNOW ABOUT THE CITY COUNCIL'S MLGW BOND INQUIRY") she contends, among other things, that Marshall was prevailed upon by other council members -- Rickey Peete and unnamed others -- not to include Rodney Herenton, son of Mayor Willie Herenton and a member of the city's brokerage community, in a formal request for written answers regarding their roles in the affair. The request was, de facto, the last action in the council's investigation. As Chumney notes, some have alleged that the younger Herenton -- employed successively by Morgan Keegan and the FTN Financial division of First Tennessee Bank, two parties to the eventual brokering arrangement -- might have been in a position to profit directly from it.
Both the ongoing FBI probe and the council's more tentative -- and now terminated -- one were launched amid suspicions by some that Herenton had intervened in the structuring of the MLGW/TVA deal to reward brokerages and law firms that had supported his campaigns financially.
Peete angrily denied the alleged intervention with Marshall, and Marshall backed him up later Monday, saying, "I never related to Councilman Chumney that Rickey Peete or anybody else asked me not to include the mayor's son, Rodney Herenton." Maintaining that it was "my decision and my decision alone," Marshall did acknowledge that he had conferred with other council members before leaving Rodney Herenton off the list of those formally questioned under council letterhead because, as Marshall had said in a memo cited by Chumney, he "was not listed as a participant in the official transaction."
Marshall said that staff members who audited his conversation on the matter with Chumney "confirm that I never stated Rickey Peete had that involvement." Chumney, however, stands by her assertion. In her written statement Monday, she complained further about the wording of Marshall's letter containing questions to former MLGW president Herman Morris, suggesting that Morris should have been asked, regarding alleged taped telephone conversations with the mayor and others on the MLGW matter, "whether or not such tapes exist and if so, request[ing] that they be produced to the council for our review." By asking only if Morris had tapes in his possession, said Chumney, Marshall allowed him "to artfully dodge the question ... leaving the public in the dark on the important issue of whether taped conversations do exist regarding the deal."
Chumney also wrote that she was "slandered by both the Mayor, and Councilman [Edmund] Ford; and threatened by Ford and a member of the Mayor's administration for simply asking questions." Chumney, a lawyer, conceded Tuesday that her use of the term "slander" was loose and said she was willing to withdraw it. But she insisted that Herenton, who called her "mean, angry, and reckless" last June, had meant thereby to intimidate her.
As for Councilman Ford, Chumney cited his widely reported (and recorded) statement to her at a council committee meeting chaired by Marshall last week, "You better watch your back." Though others present, including the Flyer's John Branston, agree with Chumney that the remark was unwarranted and deserved a reprimand from Marshall, a recording of Ford's remarks indicate some degree of ambiguity. His previous sentence, imputing an alliance between Chumney and former MLGW executive Larry Thompson (one that Chumney denies), was "He's going to get you in trouble," and could lead to an interpretation of the "watch your back" remark as a "fair warning" (subsequent words from Ford) about Thompson's influence.
The suggestion in her Monday statement that "a member of the Mayor's administration" had threatened her turned out, as Chumney amplified on it Tuesday, to refer to remarks made to her at a recent council meeting by the mayor's special assistant, Pete Aviotti.
Both Chumney and Aviotti agree that at a recent social gathering the councilwoman and Aviotti's wife, a First Tennessee employee, quarreled about Chumney's skepticism concerning the bank's relationship to the MLGW/TVA deal. Both agree that the parting between Chumney and the Aviottis was cordial. And both agree that Aviotti greeted Chumney at the next council meeting with a reference to Chumney's departure from the party. As Aviotti remembers it, he said, "Carol, I'm glad the police didn't pick you up. You had three glasses of wine." Chumney remembers him as saying, "I could have had you picked up."
Aviotti insists, in any case, that he was only teasing and that, when Chumney responded, "I only had one glass," he said, jovially, "Oh, I know. I know." Chumney's recollection is that Aviotti persisted in stating she had consumed three glasses of wine. Interestingly, Aviotti also recalls having hugged Chumney when she left the social gathering and having said "Be careful" in a solicitous manner. Chumney doesn't recall those words, but she insists that Aviotti's manner and meaning at the council meeting later were both meant to intimidate -- an interpretation scoffed at by Aviotti, who says that, in any case, he was not acting on behalf of Mayor Herenton.
Elaborating on all the circumstances Tuesday, Chumney continued to insist on the existence of "a culture of threats, intimidation, and bullying" at City Hall and asserted, "Anyone who opposes the mayor on any issue is either fired or threatened [with firing]." She cited the cases of Morris, forced out by the mayor late last year, and a succession of discharged police directors under Herenton. (Gale Jones Carson, the mayor's spokesperson, vehemently denied all Chumney's allegations on Monday.)
And Chumney stands by the substance of her Monday statement -- specifically that, as she put it then, the council, in opting out of what had once been billed as a "Watergate-type" investigation of its own, had abrogated its "fiduciary responsibility in oversight of MLGW operations." Further: "Perhaps they [the council majority] are unaware that the U.S. Attorney will not investigate violations of the city charter, or ordinances. Or perhaps they simply forgot when they ran for the council, that the old adage applies: If you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen."
Whatever the merits of her case, Chumney plainly intends to remain in the kitchen herself, close by the cauldron of the MLGW matter and other controversial issues -- even though, as she acknowledges, dealing with the reaction of her colleagues over the past several months has from time to time constituted "rough duty." As for allegations, increasingly made by some of her colleagues and other observers, that she's merely grandstanding, she sighs and says, "What difference would that make, even if it were true, which I deny? Does that mean these issues should not be dealt with? I don't think so!"