Jul 20 2013

U of M College Democrats address Gov. Haslam leadership crisis

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

The following is an editorial penned by the University of Memphis College Democrats. It is published here in its entirety.


Tennesseans face a leadership crisis due to the self-serving mismanagement of our state by Governor Bill Haslam. So far, during his more than three years in office, Governor Haslam has abused the public trust in order to enrich him and his friends. As dogged investigative reporting offers more insights into the nature of this administration, the public is learning just how pervasive and damaging Governor Haslam’s “leadership” has been for the middle class Tennessean, and why it is imperative that we consider House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh for election as our next governor:

• Governor Haslam awarded a $330 million contract for the management of state buildings to Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), a company with which the Governor has over $10,000 invested. The Governor maintains a close relationship with JLL executives, inviting them to an “intimate dinner” at the Governor’s Residence during the contract bidding process in April 2012.
• Governor Haslam’s family company, Pilot Flying J, is currently under investigation by the FBI for knowingly withholding fuel rebates from trucking companies with which they do business. The investigation calls into question the Governor’s business integrity and is indicative of a culture of blatant disregard for middle class workers within the Haslam Empire.
• Bill Haslam failed to disclose that he paid lobbyist Tom Ingram for political advice while Ingram lobbied on behalf of a coal company hoping to mine beneath state parks.
• The Haslam Administration outsourced a million dollar contract for maintenance of the state’s fleet of vehicles to Bridgestone/Firestone, a company once headed by Mark Emkes, Haslam’s former finance chair. The bloated deal includes massive markups that waste taxpayer dollars. For instance, a $1.74 headlight bulb cost Tennesseans $12.
• Haslam outsourced the state’s motor pool to Enterprise for the price of $739,000, despite the fact that state employees used only $450,000 worth of services. General Services Commissioner Steve Cates began pushing for the deal around the time that he hired former Enterprise executive Kathleen Hansen to head General Services’ motor vehicle management division.
• Governor Haslam appointed Brad Martin interim President of the University of Memphis. Martin was the CEO of Saks Inc., and hired Haslam as an executive, when the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the company on charges of fraud for withholding millions owed to clothing retailers. Martin is also conducting Pilot’s internal investigation regarding the withholding of fuel rebates.
• Haslam appointee Kate O’Day, head of the Department of Children’s Services (DCS), resigned amid an investigation into the deaths of 31 children in DCS care.
• Under Haslam’s guidance, the State of Tennessee awarded a $200 million-plus contract to provide health services for our state’s inmates to Centurion, which employs the wife of the head of the Tennessee Department of Corrections, despite concerns about the company’s qualifications and the fact that Centurion’s bid came in almost $20 million higher than its competitor’s bid.

This laundry list of scandals, mismanagement, and disregard for the livelihood of Tennesseans is emblematic of the leadership crisis facing our state. Haslam’s passion for political patronage endangers the welfare of ordinary Tennesseans and threatens to cause serious long-term damage to the state we all love. For the good of the state, Tennesseans need a candidate for governor whose leadership offers a clear contrast with Gov. Haslam and his self-serving Capitol Hill cronies.

Leader Craig Fitzhugh ran the Bank of Ripley in a clean and honest manner; Governor Haslam has been an executive at two companies that federal authorities have investigated. Leader Fitzhugh has given nearly 20 years of his life to a career in public service aimed at increasing the well-being of all Tennesseans; Governor Haslam has spent his ten years in public office focused on the financial fate of his inner circle. Leader Fitzhugh has been a champion of bipartisanship during his years in Tennessee politics; Haslam has spinelessly rubber-stamped the agenda of the most radical state legislature in Tennessee history. For these reasons, we urge Craig Fitzhugh to enter the 2014 Governor’s race.

At the end of Don Sundquist’s tenure as Governor, it was revealed that Sundquist gave no-bid state contracts to his business associates, and then the FBI raided the business offices of a close friend of his. The parallels with Bill Haslam are striking. Tennesseans had the good sense to elect Phil Bredesen after the mismanagement of the Sundquist years; and, after four years of Haslam’s underhanded governance, we are confident that the sensible citizens of our state will have the wherewithal to elect another serious leader who is committed to serving all Tennesseans. We are confident that Craig Fitzhugh is that leader.

Charles Uffelman–University of Memphis
President of University of Memphis College Democrats
Matt Strauser–Princeton University

Sep 20 2011

Stephen Fincher (TN08) named one of DC’s “Most Corrupt”

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

Corruption in Tennessee Has a New Name

When you think of corruption in Washington DC a freshman Representative from a rural district isn’t the first person that comes to mind, or at least, that’s not the archetype that we’ve come to expect. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen, or that it doesn’t happen.

Well, it happened folks, and sooner than anyone ever anticipated. Rep. Stephen Fincher (R) Frog Jump has been named one of the 19 most corrupt members of Congress by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

That’s one heck of an accomplishment for a Freshman.

From the report:

“Rep. Fincher ruthlessly lied and cheated his way to an electoral victory. Given his track record, how can Americans believe anything that comes out of his mouth now that he’s in Congress?” said CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan. “Members like this give Congress a bad name.”

Citing a sketchy, at best, loan during the campaign and inconsistent financial disclosures CREW notes that the Federal Election Commission also found the loan to “probably be illegal”, but chose to do nothing about it. With justice like this, it’s no wonder people are losing faith in government institutions.

So, it seems that instead of shaking up Washington, Fincher has chosen to shakedown Washington, doing his own business before the business of his constituents. Good times.

I can’t wait to see what he does for his next act. Maybe he’ll introduce a bill to suspend EPA rules and end capital gains taxes. Oh wait, he did that too.


Jun 17 2011

Good Government is a Partnership, Not an Entitlement

Posted by Steve Ross in activism

Partnerships don't maintain themselves, they take effort from all sides

First, some definitions:

Partnership: An association of people working together for common goals and aims for their benefit.

Entitlement: A belief that one has a right to something with minimal or no contribution.

One persistent complaint that I hear about Memphis, from people who mostly live outside the city, is that the whole place is corrupt, from the City government and all its divisions to the schools, and the developers and regular joes on the street, depending on ingrained prejudices of the complainer.

I’ll grant you that Memphis has problems, but the notion that Memphis is the home of corruption says more about the speaker than Memphis, and what it says isn’t particularly pretty. Yeah we’ve got a lot of things to address, and yes those issues are challenging, but the lens through which these individuals see the world is one of having no skin in the game.

Memphis is a regional financial and population center. That means that a lot of what goes on in this area, which includes most of west TN, north MS, east AR, and even parts of KY and MO, happens because Memphis has this mantle. From that frame, all those parties, as well as the people of Memphis have skin in the game. The better Memphis does, the better all these surrounding areas will do.

But that’s not the way people have chosen to look at it.

It’s easy to leave. It’s easy to whisk yourself away to your quiet suburban neighborhood in the County, or in DeSoto, or Crittenden and forget how much of your life and livelihood depends on Memphis being the best Memphis it can be. In fact, we’ve made it too easy over the years, expanding infrastructure to accomodate people who have checked out of being a part of the solution, often with little or no effort.

Good government doesn’t just happen, it is intentional. It requires the participation of all those that have a stake in the success of an area. It requires people to serve as checks on power both at the ballot box, and the 1460 days between election days. It requires engagement and an understanding of issues that often fall outside our personal bubbles.

For instance, blight is not a serious problem in my neighborhood just outside of Central Gardens. Sure there are some ugly buildings. There are things that just don’t fit the character and every time I pass them I wonder just what the heck someone was thinking. But I understand that blight be it a half mile away, or 5 miles away, negatively impacts me personally, even if I don’t see it every day. It depresses home values across the city even if it doesn’t exist next door. That, in turn, negatively impacts city tax revenue, which negatively impacts investments we should be making in our city, as well as vital services. All these things impact me, and they impact you too.

But too often we only look at the symptom. “This road is falling apart”, “Crime is too high”, “Traffic is a mess”, whatever the complaint, it is not just constrained to the situation, it is a symptom of a bigger problem.

We, as a people feel entitled to good government, as if it is supposed to just make itself in a vacuum. As if it can judge for us what is good and what is bad with no input. This sense of entitlement is a passive aggressive stance, and one that is ultimately toxic for both the government and the people served by that government.

Certainly, everyone directly involved in government should endeavor to create and maintain “good government”, whatever that is. But people are human, and because we are human we are fallible. Because our institutions, be they governments, or religious institutions, or other associations are made up of people, they are also fallible, and subject to failures as a result.

You don’t have to look far for examples of this fallibility outside of government. The persistent reports of child abuse from clergy, which, despite perception, is not unique to the Catholic church, is an example of institutional failures due to human fallibility.

From that frame, the expectation that people, be they government officials or religious leaders, are just supposed to do the right thing on their own, is entitlement at its worst. Certainly we hope for this, but to expect it is folly. If you want something, you have to go out and make it. The people who benefit most from our institutions understand this.

“But they have too much power, access, etc.” That may be true, but access has become much easier. Rarely does a day go by that I don’t communicate with one of my elected officials. Just the other day I talked to Kemp Conrad, not because I have extraordinary access, but because we engaged each other. Through that engagement, hopefully, we both came away with a better understanding of our perspectives. Through this intentional engagement, my concerns, my perspective was heard. Whether or not it will impact the way Councilman Conrad votes is another issue entirely, but it was heard, and responded to, and in a partnership of over 600,000 people that make up Memphis, its something.

We all have to stop relying on someone else to do it for us. Certainly there are good people out there working for the good of all. People like Brad Watkins with Mid-South Peace and Justice Center who made tackling the homelessness problem in Memphis the cornerstone of MSPJC’s mission. Or Memphis Heritage who lobbied relentlessly to save a historic building from demolition. But these people can’t do this on their own, and neither can government. They need engagement, they need the energy of the people to find the best solutions for the challenges facing the city. They need it all the time, not just at budget time or on election day.

And that’s one of the primary failures of Memphis as an economic and population center. We don’t, as citizens or a government, act as though we’re thinking three moves ahead, we react.

There are some significant problems with relying on a reaction rather than action. First, you’re a step behind. Second, whatever you decide to do or not do is colored by the source of information. So if it’s budget time and people are talking about an issue as if it’s waste, you may decide its waste too, only to later discover that maybe it isn’t. Your lack of direct information has hampered your ability to react making you at least 3 steps behind. Third, and most importantly, because you find yourself this far behind, you’re in a really bad position to work for a positive solution. Now you’re caught in a “just don’t break it” mode, which is like putting your issue on life support.

I talk and think a lot about intention. Intention is a funny thing. We can all intend to do something or be something and not meet the bar set by that intention. But despite our falling below expectations there was some effort. Working intentionally is different. It means you have thought, and talked, and worked and built a coalition to deliberately impact something in some way.

In this city, and across the country I see a lot of people with good intentions, but I don’t see enough people working intentionally, with a specific end in mind…at least not on my side of most issues. And that’s why I think we’ve been losing ground for so long. We haven’t been working intentionally as a group toward specific and tangible goals. Until those goals are defined and expressed to our government, from political leaders to low level government workers, the partnership will remain broken, and so will so much of what could be here in Memphis.

Ed. Note: I’ll have more on ways to get involved and informed in an upcoming post. Stay tuned.

Nov 18 2008

Is Memphis Ready For Another Indictment?

Posted by Steve Ross in Uncategorized

I’m not saying it will happen, or that anyone’s guilty, or anything like that. To be sure, I don’t know enough of the facts surrounding the Mayor’s personal and professional doings to speak intelligently on the matter. I am pretty sure that Memphis isn’t ready for another indictment.

The Feds here in Memphis have a mixed record when it comes to political indictments. On the one hand you’ve got John Ford. He and his other Tennessee Waltzers are either in jail, or on their way out of jail. On the other hand, you’ve got Edmund Ford Sr., who was found not guilty. I’m not going to make any judgments on the quality of the indictments, but it is interesting that former U.S. Attorney Kustoff left the office (May 16th was his last day) before the Edmund Ford Sr. case concluded (May 21st). I’m not saying it had anything to do with any weakness in the case, because I don’t know that and I recognize that US Attorneys are political appointees and do not actually present the cases. I just find it interesting.

The latter trial involving Edmund Ford left a bad taste in the mouths of many Memphians. A lot of people, including some who initially thought he was guilty, felt the Government’s case looked like entrapment, even if it didn’t meet the legal standard of entrapment. Many people in Memphis looked at the latter indictments as a witch hunt.

Perception vs. Reality being what it is, there is a perception in the community that because the majority of the Memphians indicted in both Tennessee Waltz and Main Street Sweeper were African-American, that this amounted to a racially driven hit job on African-American civic leaders. Remember, in the battle between perception vs. reality, perception often wins.

So now the Memphis US Attorney’s office has a perception problem, and while the Grand Jury is still out on the Mayor, the Mayor most certainly understands this and will use this perception problem in his upcoming campaign to turn any potential indictment into a racial, rather than legal issue.

The Mayor has plenty of public perception to back him up.

1. The perception that only African-Americans were targeted in both operations as I mentioned above. The reality is that this is not the case. That said, the fact that so much of the media coverage in Memphis centered on the Fords ultimately reinforces this perception.

2. Neither Tennessee Waltz, nor any other operation, uncovered individuals who may have sought to buy influence. Certainly, people seeking to buy influence don’t advertise in the classifieds, but while it’s easier to investigate the demand side, the supply side is usually where it begins.

3. There is a perception in Memphis, right or wrong, that wealthy whites consistently buy influence in the city or use their influence to discredit African-American leaders. Herenton effectively planted this seed back in June of 2007. Remember this?

“I think the city of Memphis should know what so-called powerful businessmen are doing to their leaders,” Smith told The Commercial Appeal on Wednesday.
“I think it should upset not only the African-American community, but the whole city.”

4. The Mayor, who has fought off charges of corruption for as long as I’ve lived here, knows how to work a situation. He’s doing it right now. In yesterday’s CA we learned that the Mayor had summoned people to serve as character witnesses on his behalf. Publicly, this looks like solidarity between the Mayor and his current and former appointees. Publicly, this discredits any impression of wrongdoing on the Mayor’s part. It will be interesting to see how many people actually sign the affidavits, but from a PR standpoint, the Mayor has won this round.

So, aside from the evidentiary challenges the government faces, there are some pretty significant PR challenges. Now, that doesn’t seal the deal against the government’s case, but it does raise the standard for them. If the government presents a case rife with circumstantial evidence, they will lose, and be called out by just about every quarter of Memphis as racially driven partisan hacks. If the government can dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s and create a narrative of corruption, they may still lose. The reason, this case will be tried in the court of public opinion more than any other corruption trial in recent memory. The Mayor has a platform, and he’ll damn well use it. It will be difficult for the US Attorney’s office to counter the Mayor, without giving away the store.

So, where to go from here? The US Attorney’s office has a duty to investigate and prosecute individuals who break the law, regardless of the public perception. I’m sure if they feel they have a case, they’ll go with it despite any PR challenges they may face. At the same time, a great deal of caution needs to be exercised so they don’t further diminish the public faith in the local office. If this one gets screwed up, any attempts to reel in corruption could be devastatingly crippled in the future.