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.