Former Shelby County Commissioner Bruce Thompson was sentenced this evening to six months in prison and fined $10,000 for telling executive of a Jackson, Tn. construction company that he could influence votes on the Memphis school board.
Thompson was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla on one count of mail fraud.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, he could have been sentenced to 21-27 months in prison.
But the plea deal from Thompson's February guilty plea would have allowed Thompson to withdraw his guilty plea if he was sentenced to more than a year and a day in jail. McCalla could have rejected it and the case would have moved toward trial. But McCalla accepted the recommendation of the prosecution and defense to depart from the guidelines.
"I'm here to accept responsibilities for my actions," Thompson told McCalla before the sentence was imposed. "I never expected to be here. ... My reputation has certainly taken a beating. I've spent 25 years building a reputation that's certainly been trashed."
Thompson termed his criminal behavior an "anomaly." His attorney, Leslie Ballin, argued for probation.
McCalla agreed Thompson's behavior in the case was "aberrant." But he also said a prison sentence was called for as a deterrent.
"This is a difficult concept. It only works if people know what happens," McCalla said, referring to the certainty of jail time.
Leaders of H&M Construction Company, who hired Thompson in 2004 to win a contract to build three Memphis city schools had some vocal misgivings about what Thompson was doing.
The reservations are detailed in an excerpt from an FBI report in what became a federal corruption case.
The FBI report excerpt, also known as a “302,” was filed as part of Ballin’s argument that Thompson should avoid prison time and instead be sentenced to probation.
Back and forth
Thompson admitted taking $7,000 in 2004 from two construction firms, H&M Construction and Salton-Fox Construction of Memphis. The payment was made to Thompson after he told the companies’ executives he could control votes on the Memphis City Schools board because of his position as a county commissioner. The companies, working in partnership, were seeking the construction contract.
Thompson quibbled about his precise role, according to the FBI report on its interview with James E. Campbell of H&M.
“I’m not lobbying, I’m consulting,” Campbell quoted Thompson as saying.
Campbell drew up a consulting contract, but Thompson never signed it.
Campbell had five meetings with Thompson when he spotted Thompson on H&M’s parking lot in Jackson talking with another company official, Dewitt Day. Thompson asked Campbell what he thought about making campaign contributions to four school board members.
“It looks like this for that,” Campbell remembered replying.
He said Thompson’s response was, “It’s legal to do.”
Campbell planned to write the campaign contribution checks and “it was agreed Thompson would deliver the checks to the recipients.”
“While writing the first check, Campbell decided it didn’t look good for H&M to give campaign contributions to these individuals,” the FBI report reads. “Campbell then thought about using H&M subcontractors to give the contributions but ultimately decided Day could give the $7,000 to his relatives in Memphis and have them deliver the contributions in their name.”
Day “grabbed” $7,000 and drove to Memphis, according to the FBI. His brother-in-law also didn’t like the looks of the money exchange and consulted attorney and former Memphis City Council member John Bobango.
“Bobango advised Day not to give these campaign contributions because H&M already had the (school board) votes to win approval,” the FBI 302 reads. Campbell told Thompson and others, including construction executive Kirby Salton, that the deal was off.
“Thompson and Salton went on to say that the four individuals would be disappointed and Campbell got the impression the ‘votes could go the other way,’” according to the report. It was Thompson’s conduct during the conference call that broke the law, Ballin conceded.
Campbell then wrote Salton a check for $7,000 and “never questioned Salton on whether he delivered the campaign contribution to the four individuals.”
Ballin argued in his position paper that Thompson’s sentence should be determined based on the $7,000 instead of the more than $250,000 Thompson was paid by the two construction firms. He also contended Thompson wasn’t using his office as a county commissioner to influence the school board.
“H&M suffered no loss and Thompson only received the fair market value of services rendered by way of his arms-length consulting contract,” Ballin wrote.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim DiScenza disagreed on the harm done even if Thompson didn’t influence the outcome.
“Whether or not campaign contributions were required to be given in order for H&M Construction Company to win contract approval is irrelevant, as it is uncontested that the defendant conveyed to H&M .... managers that said contributions would in fact be needed to influence the awarding of the contract,” DiScenza wrote in the government’s position paper submitted last week.
McCalla sided with DiScenza in his ruling and the higher dollar amount was a factor in the prison sentence.
Salton and school board members Wanda Halbert, Sara Lewis, Willie Brooks and Hubon Sandridge all testified before the federal grand jury that indicted Thompson. Salton said publicly that he paid several thousand dollars to a campaign worker for Halbert, who has since been elected to the Memphis City Council. Halbert denied any knowledge of getting the cash but listed on an amended campaign finance report $2,000 that was lost.
DiScenza said in February that the four school board members mentioned by Thompson but never identified in court were not aware of the deal, and none has ever been charged with taking the money.Thompson had no comment as he left the Federal Building this evening. The federal Bureau of Prisons will determine where and when he reports to prison.