Whether or not Elbert Jefferson has been guilty of outright illegalities in his role as former mayor Willie Herenton's last city attorney, it seems clear that his continued presence in city government constitutes, at the very least, an embarrass-
ment and, at most, an obstacle to the very conduct of city business.
Jefferson's actions in approving and expediting payment of $55,000 in legal fees owed to Herenton's privately engaged defense lawyer, Robert Spence, were obviously a case in point. The fact is that the then mayor, already on his way out the door, needed the services of Spence, himself a former city attorney, not in relation to any municipal business but solely to protect himself against possible prosecutorial action.
The sum expended to Spence is not vast, especially when compared to the enormous payments made routinely to Herenton's favored legal aides, but the transaction was large enough — and unusual enough — to arouse the attentions of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As is well known, the FBI was already looking into Herenton's business dealings, especially as they may have connected to his public activities, and this new revelation underscores the preexisting questions about the former mayor.
Whatever Jefferson's talents or dedications — and there are many people in city government who speak well of him — he has become excess baggage and needs to go. Such former defenders as council chairman Harold Collins and council member Janis Fullilove indicated over the weekend that they are moving toward that conclusion, and his fate apparently will be determined at an executive session of the council on September 15th, if not before then. (See Politics, page 14.)
Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery was frustrated in his first — abrupt and probably premature — attempt to discharge Jefferson, but time seems to be proving Lowery right. Beyond the Spence matter itself, there is the question of missing documentation — on such matters as the contract with another preferred Herenton lawyer, Ricky Wilkins, and the legal fees paid to Wilkins — that Jefferson would seem to be answerable for.
It may be that none of these matters rises to the level of illegality per se, but impropriety? Yes. Regardless of whoever next ascends to the office of mayor, the citizens of Memphis deserve a fresh start in the way the city goes about doing things. The change needs to come about now, and, however peremptory Lowery may have been in his initial handling of things, he appears to have been spot-on in relation to the fundamental issues themselves.
Elbert Jefferson needs to do the right thing and cut himself loose. In that case, some honor might attend to his departure. If he chooses not to and forces the council or — even more ominously — the feds to resolve the matter, then he cannot avoid such consequences as may come of that.
Jefferson had one day in court — his hearing on the firing matter last month — and Chancellor Walter Evans found for him then. He shouldn't press his luck.