SHOCKED: "Just to hear the words was shocking to her," said attorney Bill Massey of the reaction of former state Sen. Kathryn Bowers Thursday when she was sentenced to 16 months in prison for bribery in the Tennessee Waltz corruption sting. -- Photo By Bill Dries
She came to federal court on Valentine's Day wearing red - her hair a slightly different shade of red than her jacket. Some of her supporters wore red as well and carried homemade signs with hearts on them.
What is likely to be the last chapter in Kathryn Bowers' public life looked in some ways like the beginning of that life more than 30 years ago. The small group of about two dozen supporters would have been just about the right size for the grassroots rallies and meetings that Bowers was a part of in the late 1960s and early '70s.
Now, as then, there are setbacks. The former state senator was sentenced Thursday to one year and four months in prison for taking $11,500 in bribes in the FBI undercover corruption sting Tennessee Waltz. It was her hard-won success in politics and ultimately her betrayal of that success that brought Bowers before U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Breen.
"I am humbled and I am changed," she told Breen in a voice higher and fainter than usual. "If I had to do it again, I would not accept a penny. ... I ask for forgiveness from this court."
Health not a concern
Notably, Bowers did not personally ask Breen to take into account medical conditions that she cited as a factor in her decision in July to plead guilty. Her attorneys, Bill Massey and Lorna McClusky, did bring up the health concerns in a bench conference out of earshot of reporters. Massey later confirmed that was where they made and lost an appeal for probation.
Bowers sat at the defense table by herself as Massey, McClusky and prosecutors Lorraine Craig and Tim DiScenza huddled at the bench with Breen.
"Kathryn does not like to talk about her medical condition," Massey said after the hearing.
It apparently wasn't a significant factor for Breen either.
It was just last month that Breen sentenced another Tennessee Waltz defendant, former state Sen. Ward Crutchfield of Chattanooga, to two years' probation for taking a bribe. Breen specifically cited Crutchfield's failing health in his decision to pass on prison time. He said he didn't believe Crutchfield could get in federal prison the constant monitoring of his medical condition required for Crutchfield's well being.
Breen made no mention of Bowers' health last week in laying out the factors that went into his decision to sentence her to prison but for a shorter period than the sentencing guidelines that started at three years and one month behind bars.
Breen said he went below the guidelines because he was taking into account Bowers' record of civic involvement.
"This has been a difficult time for the citizens of Memphis and Shelby County," he said, referring to the toll the undercover sting operation has taken on public confidence in elected officials locally.
Most of the dozen defendants, who all either have pleaded guilty or been convicted by juries, are from Memphis.
"This impacts the ability of individuals to rely upon their elected officials," Breen said of the scandal. "It sends the wrong message for ... young people who are contemplating going into that kind of service."
Not lacking in support
Among the supporters in the courtroom were state Reps. Larry Miller and G.A. Hardaway. As he left the Clifford Davis and Odell Horton Federal Building, Miller would only say that he was "disappointed" by the sentence.
Other Bowers supporters, such as CME Church Bishop Edward Brown, were more outspoken.
"It's better than the 37 months. We thank God for that," he told reporters. "I have seen persons who have done worse and gotten probation. ... She should have got probation. That's the bottom line."
Bowers exited the federal building with no comment for reporters who followed her across Front Street to the Mud Island parking garage as afternoon rush-hour traffic from the surrounding government buildings was just getting started. In the elevator down to street level, a reporter asked her if she was relieved.
"Would you be?" Bowers replied.
Others who talked with Bowers privately said she was shocked by the sentence.
"After being here for 63 years, to face going into prison is a very daunting experience. It was shocking to her. Just to hear the words was shocking to her," Massey said.
Massey said it's unlikely Bowers will return to politics after prison.
Among those who showed up to bolster Bowers was Minerva Johnican. Like Bowers, she struggled and came to political power in the Memphis of the early 1970s. She struggled in the larger political community that then was dominated by white political leaders.
And like Bowers, she clashed with the Ford political machine from time to time when the political organization headed by former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr. was at the height of its powers.
"I don't miss politics," Johnican - the former Shelby County commissioner, Memphis City Council member and
Criminal Court clerk - said as she left the hearing.
Johnican recently returned to lend her expertise to the 2007 mayoral campaign of Herman Morris Jr. Johnican ran second to incumbent Dick Hackett in the 1987 race for Memphis mayor.
Just a few seconds after she talked about not missing politics, Johnican talked about possibly being interested in running for an elected office in the future but left it at "I don't know. Maybe."