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Councilman may have violated open government law

March 19th, 2007 12:03 am by Associated Press



MEMPHIS - A councilman at the center of an FBI investigation may have violated the state's open government law when he talked privately to council members about supporting the man who would eventually become president of the city's utility.


Lawyers hired by the City Council have been trying to interview the president and CEO of Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, Joseph Lee, as part of an independent probe into the utility accounts of Councilman Edmund Ford. The lawyers are scheduled to present their findings on Tuesday.


The FBI is investigating why the utility protected Ford's business and residential utility services from disconnection even though he owed more than $16,000. Records show Lee aided in that by telling his staff to keep Ford's utilities on.


According to a councilman and other records recently obtained by The Commercial Appeal, Ford played a pivotal role in getting Lee his position and may have violated the law in doing so.


In the days leading up to a 2004 City Council vote on whether Lee should head the utility, Council Chairman Tom Marshall said Ford lined up votes behind the scenes to ensure Lee got the job.


Marshall said Ford privately lobbied council members, claiming Lee's appointment would end "the racial gridlock we were in."


Tennessee's Open Meetings Act prohibits deliberation of public business in closed meetings or electronic communication.


In 1990, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled that Shelby County commissioners violated the law when they discussed privately with each other, including in phone conversations, which candidate they would like to fill a board vacancy.


"He did ask me to consider voting for Lee," Marshall said. "He said that as far as he was concerned, it was becoming a very racial issue and we did not need that at the time."


The council eventually voted 7-5 to appoint Lee. Ford served as chairman of the City Council's General Services & Utilities Committee, which oversees the city-owned utility, until December when he was removed from the post after his arrest on federal bribery charges. The utility's systems were also set up to notify top utility employees if more than a dozen other Memphis politicos, including Mayor Willie Herenton and some City Council members, faced service cutoff due to unpaid bills. In a letter to the council last week, Lee's lawyer, Robert Spence said Lee denies ever receiving monetary benefits or items of value from Ford or council members. Spence also said Lee won't be cooperating in the council's independent investigation because he has already testified before a federal grand jury investigating the utility. (AP) Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com AP-CS-03-18-07 1649EDT


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