Memphis ought to get a patent on black-white partnerships that go bad.
When such marriages are made in the name of minority participation, some people more idealistic than I am see harmony, justice, and the way forward. I see politicians morphing into consultants, influence about to be monetized, promising careers derailed, and indictments waiting to happen.
Wanda Halbert and Bruce Thompson are the latest in a long list of ebony-and-ivory combos. Going back only 20 years, other mishap match-ups include "Speedy" Murrell and Charles McVean; Harold Ford Sr. and C.H. Butcher Jr.; Willie Herenton and MLGW bond underwriters; Tim Willis and NBA Now; John Ford and TennCare contractors; and Edmund Ford, Rickey Peete, and Joe Cooper.
In 2004, Thompson, a white Shelby County commissioner, and Halbert, a black Memphis school board member, teamed up to help a Jackson, Tennessee, contractor who was bidding on a school construction project. The script was familiar: Contractor needs minority participation to get votes. Commissioner plays consultant. Board member gets "campaign contribution." FBI smells payoff. Halbert gets called before federal grand jury. And Thompson gets bad publicity and hires defense attorney Leslie Ballin.
Halbert and Thompson were both protégés of former school board powerhouse Sara Lewis. Halbert was an energetic and ambitious young school board member. Thompson was a fresh political face from the business world, representing East Memphis. Lewis ran Shelby County's Head Start operation from 1998 to 2000, and Thompson was on the board. What looked like a promising mix of young and old and black and white has become, instead, the latest public scandal.
Memphians have seen this movie before.
In 1987, businessman McVean was pushing state legislation and a local referendum to legalize horseracing. He befriended liquor-store owner and political wheeler-dealer J.P. "Speedy" Murrell to gin up black voter support. The legislation and referendum passed, but McVean got indicted, and although his case ended with a hung jury, horseracing in Memphis was dead.
In 1990, then-Congressman Harold Ford was tried in federal court on corruption charges tied to Butcher, an East Tennessee banker. Butcher and his partners owned land on Mud Island. According to the government, Ford helped get the bridge to Mud Island built as a favor to Butcher and his friends. Ford's first trial ended in a mistrial, and his second trial ended with his acquittal.
In 2002, Herenton got tired of seeing MLGW send most of its lucrative bond underwriting business to New York. He made a clumsy pitch for keeping more of it in Memphis and Little Rock, where black lawyers could get more of the action. According to Herenton, his complaint sparked a grand jury investigation targeting him.
Also in 2002, ex-con and self-styled consultant Willis was hired as the minority partner to help sell the NBA to Memphis. The campaign succeeded, but Willis made history for something else. In 2003 he began working with federal agents looking at corruption in Shelby County Juvenile Court, where Willis had some contracts. The FBI broadened its investigation to Nashville, and Willis became the star undercover operative for E-Cycle Management. Among those he helped snare were "consultants" John Ford, Roscoe Dixon, and Kathryn Bowers. All three black lawmakers were fooled by the FBI's fake black-white management team and the promise of big money.
John Ford was already making more than $800,000 as a consultant for TennCare contractors Doral Dental and United American HealthCare. What could he deliver for those Midwestern companies? Votes, customers, and state contracts, of course.
In 2006, city councilmen Edmund Ford and Rickey Peete got into the game. Their white benefactor was lobbyist Joe Cooper, who represented billboard owner William Thomas on a zoning matter before the council. Cooper got nailed in another case, started cooperating with the feds, and Peete and Ford got indicted.
Minority participation was supposed to share the wealth in a town that was rigged to the benefit of white businesses. Instead it has become a rationale for biracial greed, cynicism, and corruption.
John Branston is a Flyer senior editor.