Opinion » Viewpoint

Selective Publicity: Herenton and Tre Hargett


Mayor Willie Herenton has a couple of battles on his hands. One of them is over a federal investigation of his real estate deals. The other one is over the media attention given to the story and the mayor's career, particularly by The Commercial Appeal.

In his speech to the Rotary Club Tuesday, Herenton addressed both matters, and it was clear by his words and appearance that they weigh heavily on him. The legal battle could be a killer, but the publicity battle offers the mayor an opportunity to score some quick points from an unlikely source: former state representative Tre Hargett.

When a public figure makes news, selective bits of their biography and public activities are sometimes included in the story. How much depends on the importance of the person and the story. Herenton, of course, gets more publicity than just about anyone in Tennessee politics, most recently in a 14-part series rehashing his life -- highs and lows -- in The Commercial Appeal in January. His appointees -- notably Joseph Lee, Pete Aviotti, Reginald French and the mayor's former bodyguards – are scrutinized in the newspaper and their character is assailed in Internet forums if there is a scandal or a hint of scandal in the appointee's past. Or, in the case of library director Keenon McCloy, even if there isn't.

Hargett is at the other end of the spectrum -- just another ex-legislator who got out of state politics three years ago and is about to get back in. Coincidentally, Herenton and Hargett shared the front-page of The Commercial Appeal on Tuesday. Herenton's picture was under a headline that said "$91,000 question" and a ground-breaking story about his personal option on the downtown Greyhound bus station. Hargett was in an unrelated story about Republicans in the Tennessee legislature nominating him to be secretary of state, a constitutional office that pays $180,000 a year.

Hargett, 39, was a state representative from Bartlett from 1997 until 2006, when he did not seek reelection. He moved from Shelby County to the Knoxville area to be vice president of the southern region for Rural Metro Corporation, a publicly traded company that provides private fire and ambulance services to government entities, including Shelby County and several other Tennessee communities. He was Republican leader of the House of Representatives at the time and often mentioned in news stories as an outspoken proponent of ethics reform.

Hargett was director of community relations for Rural Metro from 1998-2005, division general manager from 2005-2006, and VP after that. In 2005, he announced he was going to leave the legislature to become a lobbyist for Pfizer Inc, but he changed his mind. Democrats called it a classic example of "the revolving door" between legislating and lobbying.

Hargett's name came up during the Tennessee Waltz investigation of corruption in the state legislature. Posing as the head of an FBI sham company called E-Cycle Management, FBI undercover agent Joe Carroll told Hamilton County school board member Charles Love "I want to make sure Tre hasn't got cold feet. I mean, we did something for Tre."

In the taped conversation, Love says legislation favoring E-Cycle should be introduced by Hargett and representative Chris Newton. Love also tells Carson that Hargett "has got a sweetheart deal with Shelby County" for ambulance service.

Newton took a payment from E-Cycle, was charged, pleaded guilty, and served his time. Hargett was not charged with doing anything improper and his name did not come up in tapes played during the trials of Memphis defendants Roscoe Dixon and John Ford, both of whom listed their occupation as "consultant." The main target of the Chattanooga part of the investigation, former senator Ward Crutchfield, never went to trial and pleaded guilty instead.

When the conversation between Carroll and Love became public, Hargett said he resented being mentioned in it by both men. The FBI and federal prosecutors did not comment about Hargett or other public officials and private citizens whose names came up in hundreds of hours of tapes. There was never any indication that E-Cycle's swaggering fake executives "did something for Tre" or that Love, a convicted crook, knew what he was talking about. In the Ford and Dixon trials, agents said they told many lies in their undercover roles to protect their cover and advance their case.

Herenton, for whatever reason, was not mentioned in Tennessee Waltz tapes played at trials. Nor was anyone in his administration. Shelby County government was not so lucky. Former state representative Roscoe Dixon boasted of the corrupt influence he would wield as a member of mayor A C Wharton's inner circle if he could finagle a job, which he ultimately did. Wharton was apparently unaware of Dixon's dark side and was not otherwise involved in Tennessee Waltz.

It was probably inevitable that some true and faithful public servants got fragged in the Tennessee Waltz tapes. Some public servants who would later stumble, including former county commissioner Bruce Thompson, also had their names dropped by Carson and others in unflattering conversations. It was a long, complicated, tough investigation. Hargett apparently had the misfortune of being slurred in some tapes. Shortly thereafter, he suddenly left Tennessee government in the midst of a promising career. After a three-year interlude, he appears to be on his way back into state government at a salary that exceeds Herenton's or Gov. Phil Bredesen's.

For 10 years, Hargett worked for a company that was aggressively expanding its services to governments in Tennessee and other states in the controversial and newsy realm of privatization. Rural Metro's publicly traded stock soared from $2 a share to more than $9 a share in 2004-2005. It now sells for about $1.75 a share. A job as "director of community relations" for such a company is fraught with potential conflicts and merits close examination and tough questions.

None of this information about Hargett was included in a story that The Commercial Appeal deemed important enough to put on its front page. The story does not even mention his employment for ten years with Rural Metro.

"He moved to suburban Nashville last year when the legislature appointed him to the Tennessee Regulatory Authority," the story says.

That's it. No Rural Metro. No ethics questions. No potential conflicts of interest. No privatization issues. No Tennessee Waltz cameo. No sudden career change. No $180,000 a year. No politics.

No problem.

Hargett's five-page application for nomination to a Tennessee constitutional office and his resume are readily accessible on the Internet, including answers to 28 questions.

Question 23 reads, "Describe any experience you have had with legislative or executive branches of government other than as an elected or appointed official."

Hargett responded that he communicated with the Department of Emergency Medical Services regarding ambulance inspections in 2007. In response to another question about “any other information which may reflect positively or adversely on you or which you believe should be disclosed in connection with your application for nomination, Hargett wrote:

"While I believe I am an asset to Tennessee through my service at the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, I also believe that my skills and abilities are better utilized as the next Secretary of State. Should I be entrusted with the responsibility of serving as the next Secretary of State, I plan to liquidate my campaign account, which is currently open, in compliance with TCA 2-10114. This liquidation will be done to ensure there is no conflict of interest, or even an appearance of a conflict of interest, in the performance of my duties."

Willie Herenton got more publicity than he deserved this month. Tre Hargett got less. That's the breaks.

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