Opinion » Viewpoint

Shelby County Survivor

Wharton puts ex-aide Bobby Lanier on his campaign payroll.



Bobby Lanier, a nearly inseparable aide to three county mayors before Mayor A C Wharton forced him to retire in August over his role in securing an increase in Tom Jones' pension, is once again working for Wharton.

Lanier is working for Wharton's reelection. The mayor says Lanier "is not doing county work" and is being paid not from county funds but out of Wharton's campaign fund -- A C Wharton for Public Service -- which had $234,782 in it at last report (September 30th).

Wharton came into the mayor's office in 2002 promising to clear up the ethical muddle that had auditors examining the credit card, travel, dining, and entertainment expenditures of elected and appointed county officials. On balance he has, but in this case he has made it worse.

For nearly 30 years, Lanier was to "county work" what Hubie Brown was to professional basketball. He lived and breathed it as the right-hand man to mayors Wharton, Jim Rout, and Bill Morris. He can work the phones, shake the trees, and raise money with the best of 'em when an election is coming up. But the next county mayoral election is not until August. That would be August 2006.

It's not unusual for city or county employees to take jobs in the private or nonprofit sector that bring them back into contact with their own colleagues. But Lanier's turnaround is unique because he retired over a breach of trust with Wharton over Jones' pension.

An in-house investigation ordered by the mayor concluded that Lanier "circumvented" Wharton's instructions and "miscommunicated to other administration employees" what those instructions were. The report likened their collective actions to a "conspiracy." Shelby County public affairs director Susan Adler Thorp also resigned at the same time, and two other county employees -- Janet Shipman and Waverly Seward -- received letters of reprimand.

Wharton said he was out of the loop when an administrative action orchestrated by Lanier gave Jones an early retirement pension. "Anybody knows it should have been brought to my attention whether I agreed with it or disagreed with it," Wharton told the Flyer in August. Now Lanier is back on Wharton's team.

As chairman of the Shelby County Retirement Board, Wharton's attempt to undo Jones' pension was itself undone by a 9-1 vote, reaffirming, in effect, the actions of Thorp, Shipman, and Seward. And there are fresh questions about how much Wharton was out of the loop. An affidavit signed by Lanier this month says he told Wharton back in April that Jones intended to exercise his rights to reemployment with the county as a civil servant in order to apply for his pension.

This is not exactly how Wharton remembers it. He has said he "naively assumed" Jones would have to come back in an appointed position and that his pension would be discussed by the board, not approved administratively.

It may seem a hair-splitting difference, but it sparked an investigation and a review of Civil Service rights and cost two employees their jobs and two more a public spanking.

Wharton suggests politics and county work can be separated into two distinct boxes. Old Bobby was in one box. New Bobby is in another box. When he announced the resignations of Lanier and Thorp back in August, Wharton said his staff must behave as if "there are no off days." Yes, there are. County government is honest work, but it's not Homeland Security. And Wharton's own actions often seem to be the product of a political cost-benefit analysis.

Why did the mayor announce this month that it would be "suicidal" to raise county property taxes next year, when the 2006 election will be on the minds of commissioners and, perchance, a political opponent or two?

If Lanier "circumvented" and "miscommunicated" Wharton's will, then why is he still working for him? Does Lanier tell the mayor anything and everything he knows that might help him get reelected but bite his tongue if it has anything to do with "county work"?

Why did Wharton jawbone the retirement board into changing the Jones pension, and then why did the board do a 180 later as Wharton recused himself? In light of the board's affirmation of the original Jones pension, why is Thorp out, replaced by two people with backgrounds in marketing and political campaigns?

When he had two staff vacancies this year, why did Wharton turn to Commissioner Linda Rendtorff and state senator Roscoe Dixon to fill them?

In a word, the answer is politics. But in the spirit of the season, if you see Wharton and Lanier together, believe if you will that they are discussing the Grizzlies or the weather or their Christmas lists. Anything but county work.

And watch out for flying reindeer.

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