BY JACKSON BAKER and JOHN BRANSTON | JUNE 14, 2007
Toward the end of his well-attended Thursday afternoon press conference in the Hall of Mayors, a righteously calm Mayor Willie Herenton had sketched out what he said was a "well-orchestrated" criminal conspiracy in which various human "snakes" opposed to his reelection had attempted to ensnare him in a sex sting; he then began to dilate about how the other day he had killed some real snakes with a stick.
The mayor related how the bodyguard that had been with him that day said that one of the snakes lying wounded in the grass was moving its tongue. "That means it's still alive, Tony," he said. And went over to whack the offending snake one more time, this time lethally. As he did, another, previously unseen snake slithered out from under the dead one and made a getaway.
"They'd been mating!" Herenton said, recreating his sense of surprise. And it was not hard to turn that into a metaphor for the events he'd just described, in which one "snake," lawyer Richard Fields, a former ally, had been explicitly ID'd and another, whom the mayor described only as a "high-level local official" had so far not been. "But when he raises his head..." the mayor paused with a chuckle, then said, "You complete the rest of it."
Actually, there were, according to the mayor, several more snakes still out there in the high grass - all members of a local "establishment" - including one FBI agent -- that was attempting, "by any means" to " keep me from getting elected and continuing as mayor of this great city." (Names mentioned in earlier published accounts included those of MLGW board member Nick Clark and automobile dealer Russell Gwatney, whom Herenton seemed to have exculpated in an aside on Thursday.) The mayor said he'd been warned that the potential "means" for thwarting him might include "what happened to Dr. [Martin Luther] King in Memphis."
Characterizing himself as a "victim," Herenton said, "I call this the 2007 Political Conspiracy" - one discovered only because the "good God whom I serve...revealed this conspiracy to me." He said Fields, as point man for the others, tried to use a female client named Gwen Smith to seduce and tape him, then convince a federal prison inmate to say he paid bribes to the mayor to secure a liquor license.
Smith, who described herself as a former "waitress" at a Memphis strip club, was on probation for criminal charges of forgery at the time. Herenton said she is now a student at Christian Brothers University in Memphis and a single mother of three children who has gone into seclusion after appearing Thursday on the front page of the Commercial Appeal. (A TV reporter would comment later that Smith had hired a "P.R. person" to deal with whatever comes next.)
Asked why Smith had not followed through with her end of the plot, Herenton answered with apparent candor that "the commitment made to her was not fulfilled" by the conspirators. Media members at the press conference were furnished a packet which included a copy of a letter by Smith to District Attorney General Bill Gibbons in which she spelled out that commitment to have included $150,000, half her tuition to CBU, a brand new car, and a pricey three-bedroom apartment.
Also included in the packet were copies of letters Herenton had dispatched to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen asking them to investigate the "criminal conspiracy" and take legal action against its alleged perpetrators.
In her letter, Smith also said that Fields assaulted her and forced her to have sex with him in return for payments of more than $6,000.
"When Ms. Smith reported all of these activities to me and local law enforcement officials, she had in her possession a supposedly 'secret and sealed' indictment against Ralph Lunati and others that she obtained from Fields and federal authorities," Herenton said in his letter to Gonzales. Lunati owns topless clubs in the Memphis area.
The letter to Gonzales further states: "According to Ms. Smith, Fields told her that he was working with 'benefactors' who are comprised of some of the most powerful, wealthy, and influential citizens in Memphis. She also identifies as one of the benefactors an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation named Bob Reicht."
Fields could not be reached for comment, although he said earlier Thursday before the press conference that he no longer felt bound by the attorney-client privilege after Smith took her accusations to The Commercial Appeal Thursday morning. Invoking a familiar theme of his administration in the last two terms, the mayor called the newspaper's reporting and editorials biased against him.
In an apparent pitch for racial solidarity, Herenton said of black citizens, "We have always been a community that could be divided." But this time, he vowed, "divide and conquer ain't gonna work."
Three of Herentons best-known mayoral opponents had varying reactions to the news. Former MLGW head Herman Morris characterized the entire episode as bizarreand said the true victim of the affair was not Herenton but the people of Memphis who need new leadership.
City council member Carol Chumney said the mayor should have been more forthcoming, putting forth more facts and names concerning the alleged incident than he did and giving the people everything they need to make a judgment."
Former Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham thought the plot sounded credible and found it ironic that the same power establishment that put him in in the first place may have tried to do him in now.