Opinion » Viewpoint

The Memphis Week That Was

"Misremembering," McFagdon, Bowers, NBA, and School Violence


The word of the week is "misremembered," which is what Roger Clemens said Andy Pettitte did regarding a conversation they had about human growth hormone. I love the word and I know I will do my part to keep it in circulation, starting now.

Mayor Willie Herenton must have misremembered Yolanda McFagdon's brush with the law 10 years ago when he gave her a new job with a $100,000 salary. In 1998 McFagdon -- and I am going with the spellings in the federal court docket rather than the ones in City Hall records, which are different on both the first and last names -- was head of our mayor's security detail, also known as his bodyguards. She was also a crook. She allowed drug dealers to hide money at her house, told a minor child to try to cover it up when she feared her house would be searched, and tried to hamper an FBI investigation of drugs, drug money, and crooked cops.

She pleaded guilty to information in lieu of indictment, and her case was handled with speed. Four months after pleading guilty, she was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla to five months in prison and five months home confinement. She was fined $3,000. The court docket doesn't say what the FBI agents screwed by her duplicity felt about her actions or her sentence.

She did her time, and then she came back to a city job and did so well that Herenton promoted her and gave her a big raise this week. Because pensions are calculated on final salaries, she stands to make millions from taxpayers in salaries, pension, and benefits if she lives a long life. Crime pays in Herenton's book.

I can't help wondering, or miswondering, what would have happened if Yolanda McFagdon had been involved in Tennessee Waltz from the law enforcement side. That two-year sting operation depended on the trustworthiness of dozens of FBI agents, prosecutors, and confidential informants. A leak from any one of them to a target of the investigation could have blown the whole shebang, and John Ford, Roscoe Dixon, Ward Crutchfield, and Kathryn Bowers would still be taking payoffs and making laws.

Kathryn Bowers, 64, can only hope she will be half so fortunate after she does her prison time. U.S. District Judge Daniel Breen sentenced her to 16 months in prison this week on a bribery charge. All five state lawmakers indicted in Tennessee Waltz in 2005 have now been convicted and sentenced. One lesson would appear to be this: Go to trial if you must, but whatever you do, don't go to trial first.

Roscoe Dixon had the misfortune to do that. He bore the full brunt of all the tapes and star witness Barry Myers, who was even more devastating than Tim Willis because Myers was not cooperating when he was taped. Dixon got 63 months. You could argue he took more money more times, but in the money shot he reluctantly takes "one of them stacks" of five $1,000 bills from Willis, and promptly gives some of it away.

The more obvious difference between the Dixon and Bowers cases is that Dixon went to trial. Bowers got credit for "acceptance of responsibility," even though it took her two years to plead guilty, far longer than co-defendant Chris Newton, who saw the light within months. Bowers copped only after John Ford made his stand and lost.

Do character witnesses help? The people who spoke for Bowers, like the people who spoke for Ford and Dixon, were touching and sincere. We should all have such friends. A preacher thanked and blessed everyone involved, including the prosecutors. A white man called Bowers, a black woman, "the clarion voice" in the legislature for family law. Judge Breen, as he always does, listened intently to every word.

After watching a dozen or so trials in the last few years, I think bad testimony, like bad money, drives out good. What character witnesses often seem to fail to grasp, possibly because they did not hear the evidence in many cases, is that the defendant is on trial for a specific crime or crimes, not a lifetime of goodness and badness. The transcripts of Barry Myers explicit conversations with an undercover FBI agent about the true nature of politics in Nashville and Memphis should be required reading for all public servants and character witnesses.

Will school violence beget more school violence? Teachers tell me they're already hearing students say, in essence, what's the big deal about shooting one kid at Mitchell High School, we can top that. A search of stories about school shootings in Memphis in the last 15 years shows that some of the fatal ones occurred not inside buildings but outside, on school grounds, after sports events. Metal detectors won't stop that.

I was glad to see the big picture on the sports page of The Commercial Appeal Friday of Mitchell and Booker T. Washington playing a game Thursday night that was not marred by violence. Perspective was missing from Kenneth Whalum Jr.'s nonsensical call for immediately closing all schools until metal detectors are installed. Whalum called a press conference, made a few broad statements in an agitated voice, and took a few questions without explaining anything.

He insisted he is not a gadfly, then proceeded to act like one. Reporters are not trained chimps and may not heed Whalum's next call.

Herenton also ducked the question of implementing metal detectors at all schools every day, but dodging the details at press conferences is par for the course for him.

The NBA's "SWAT team" has been in Memphis, looking into our troubled franchise -- players, business plan, ownership, marketing, and building management. Sources confirm that the NBA, as part of its franchise agreement with teams, performs a sort of audit when a team's record and attendance take a deep dive.

The rift between majority owner Michael Heisley and local owners remains a problem, and the current crisis plays differently to them. For Heisley, fears that the team will move (there is a termination clause in the lease but it binds the team to Memphis for 17 years) helps him keep his sale price high.

Meanwhile, local owners would like to hear NBA Commissioner David Stern say some reassuring words about Memphis at the NBA All-Star game this weekend.

The Wall Street Journal ran a story this week by George Anders headlined "Is Owning a Sports Team a Losing Bet?" The short answer, at least for small markets such as the Nashville Predators hockey team and Memphis Grizzlies, is yes.

"For decades, the sports world has been insulated from economic reality because there are plenty of tycoons with millions to burn and not enough teams to go around," Anders wrote.

With a recession in the forecast, there are not, however, enough fans with money to burn at the overpriced games.

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