Former Shelby County Board of Commissioners member Bruce Thompson pleaded guilty Wednesday to a federal fraud charge in a corruption case involving a 2004 construction contract to build three Memphis city schools.
The plea came at Thompson's first appearance before U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla on the corruption charges he was indicted on in November.
Thompson, 48, is scheduled to be sentenced by McCalla June 6. Under terms of the plea deal, if McCalla sentences him to more than a year and a day in prison, Thompson can withdraw the guilty plea.
Thompson specifically admitted that he took $7,000 from two construction firms, H&M Construction Co. of Jackson, Tenn., and Salton-Fox Construction of Memphis, after he told H&M executives that because of his position as a county commissioner, he could control votes on the Memphis school board. Thompson served one term on the commission from 2002 to 2006.
The construction companies, working in partnership, were seeking a contract in 2004 to build three new city schools. To secure the contract for them, Thompson told the construction executives he needed $7,000 to make campaign contributions to four school board members in 2004.
"I'm not sure what happened to all of it," Thompson said in court when asked by McCalla where the money went. He told McCalla he believed he kept $2,000. Salton kept $2,000 and $3,000 was "made in campaign contributions."
Are you sure?
It was the most that Thompson said other than answering yes or no to McCalla's questions, and Thompson's belief on that point conflicted with U.S. Attorney Tim DiScenza's explanation of what the proof would have been.
At two points, Thompson asked McCalla to repeat some statements - most notably when McCalla reminded him that there was no parole in the federal court system and that by pleading guilty "you will go to prison."
DiScenza made clear at the hearing that the four school board members mentioned by Thompson but not identified in the hearing were not aware of the deal and none is charged with taking the money. DiScenza outlined what the proof would have been if the case had gone to trial.
That proof, he said, would have shown that H&M executives at one point refused to follow Thompson's directions and had other doubts about the scheme before finally getting Salton-Fox to advance the $7,000 to Thompson by check.
A campaign aide to school board member Wanda Halbert had said publicly during the grand jury investigation that construction executive Kirby Salton handed her a $2,000 check at a meeting in which Thompson and Halbert were in the same room. Salton has confirmed the exchange. Halbert has said the money never got to her or her campaign.
Former city school board members Sara Lewis, Willie Brooks and Hubon Sandridge, in addition to Halbert, were called to tesify before the grand jury that later indicted Thompson.
DiScenza said in court that the four board members questioned by federal authorities, whom he did not name, testified that they knew nothing of any exchange of money before the two construction companies got the contract.
Thompson also was paid more than $200,000 as a consultant to both construction companies. But the charge he pleaded guilty to does not involve that part of the arrangement.
Thompson walked quickly to a waiting car outside the federal building after the 45-minute hearing and said nothing to reporters.
His attorney, Leslie Ballin, indicated in court that he and Thompson will likely question some of the facts of the case or what is known as "relevant conduct" during the sentencing hearing, although not Thompson's guilt on the fraud charge.
"Today was a big day for us," Ballin told reporters. "We don't have anything to offer other than what was said in court. Life will go on and we will do what we need to do."