There were times, during and after Bruce Thompson's sentencing in federal court on Wednesday, when it almost appeared that the former county commissioner was there to be given a good citizenship award, not a punishment for admitted fraud in the amount of a quarter of a million dollars.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim DiScenza, who can sink battleships with his ferocity, went extra-light on his prosecutorial rhetoric and was almost gentle. In pre-sentencing discussions, he yielded on key points to the defense and then asked for a sentence of only a year and a day -- far lighter than the 21-to-27-month incarceration that federal sentencing guidelines for an already watered-down indictment called for.
U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla ended up bestowing a sentence that was lighter yet - only six months, to be followed by two years of supervised probation, a hundred hours of community service, and a $10,000 fine. The math was easy enough for courtroom spectators to do in their heads: Subtracting $10,000 from the total sum involved in the fraud left a remainder of $260,000. Keepers for Thompson, who had been paid $270,000 by H&M Construction of Jackson, Tennessee, for his help in securing a Memphis school-construction contract.
Much - perhaps most - of that $260,000 was long gone, of course - some of it expended in the course of what a publicly penitent Thompson told the court had been a "painful and expensive divorce," some of it paid to his legal defense, led by the able Leslie Ballin, much of the rest consumed in the last year to compensate for Thompson's "depleted savings" and the loss of clients from his investment business. Some, too, had been set aside for use as payments to members of the Memphis school board.
The idea, as Thompson had repeatedly and admittedly told the construction company, was that these "campaign contributions" to board members -- along with "consultant" Thompson's influence as a member of the county commission, which substantially funded the schools' budget - would induce the school board members to award H&M the multi-million dollar construction project which it sought.
And therein, in a touch that most comic ironists would shy away from as over the top, lay the legal basis for the fraud. Thompson had been indicted, not for what lay people might consider a shakedown of the construction company, but for deceiving the company into believing that he had more power over the school board members' votes on awarding of contracts than he actually had. Thompson was being judged not for extortion, in other words -- nor the construction company for bribery - but for his inordinate boasting.
The construction company, as Judge McCalla noted, had not asked for restitution - perhaps, he theorized, because the H&M folks had had enough dealings with Shelby County. Another possibility, of course, was that, as Ballin candidly suggested, "they did not seek restitution because they got the contract."
In any case, neither the prosecution for the judge considered restitution a necessity.
'Good people who make bad mistakes'
There was one character witness for Thompson prior to sentencing - his Presbyterian minister, Craig Strickland, who testified that this instance of law-breaking by Thompson was "inconsistent with his character," that he had performed valuable service in the church's mentoring program, and that he purposely sought to achieve humility by scrubbing the church's toilets.
Judge McCalla, too, seemed taken with Thompson's better side, likening him to other "good people who make bad mistakes," telling the now acknowledged and sentenced felon that he "appreciated the way you've handled this" (presumably by offering a guilty plea and eschewing a trial), and going so far as to tell Thompson directly, "Thank you."
When Ballin rose to ask if Thompson's six months could be served at the nearby federal prison camp at Millington, a minimum-security dormitory-style facility, McCalla assured him he thought the Bureau of Prisons would assign Thompson to a venue "more appropriate even than Millington." There was no clue as to what that might be. ("The Peabody?" one wag would venture afterward.) Even Ballin, asked to venture a guess afterward, was buffaloed. He theorized that another minimum-security facility at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, might be his client's destination.
Wherever he ends up doing his time, Thompson, grinning ear to ear, was clearly pleased with the outcome. (He might have suffered from nerves earlier; asked how his client had handled the hour or so in the courtroom, Ballin had jested that Thompson had been just fine "but for the bowel movement halfway through.")
At a subsequent press conference, Ballin was asked: Would the apparent lightness of the sentence serve as a deterrent for others tempted to similar crime? "For someone like Bruce Thompson, just to be prosecuted is the deterrent to the individual," he answered.