VOL. 122 | NO. 125 | Friday, July 06, 2007
Middle Tennessee DA In Thick of Memphis Mayoral Controversy
By Andy Meek
His law office is part of the picturesque town square of Franklin, Tenn. A lifelong resident there, he's a member of the vestry at the local St. Paul's Episcopal Church, and his family has lived in the town for more than 175 years.
But earlier this month, former Williamson County District Attorney General Joe Baugh was appointed as the special prosecutor in an investigation that's become the talk of the town some 200 miles away from the relative tranquility of Franklin.
Baugh, 60, was given the job of reviewing the claims of a 29- year-old Memphis strip club waitress who has said she was paid by a group of powerful businessmen to entice Memphis mayor Willie Herenton into a seedy encounter. That former waitress, Gwendolyn Smith, currently is in a Nashville jail cell for violating the terms of her probation stemming from an unrelated 2004 conviction.
Getting to work
Smith has been interviewed by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), and her attorney Jay Bailey said he expects she'll be released in less than a month. Once TBI agents finish their investigation, they'll turn their case file over to Baugh, who then will begin his part of the process.
Baugh declined to speculate how long it might take to conclude his work on the case.
"It's like one time a person at the courthouse asked me how long a jury was going to stay out on a case, and I said, 'Well, till they make a decision,'" he said. "You just don't know."
Baugh has deep ties to Franklin, a town whose 2005 population estimate topped 53,000. His father was a member of the County Commission and a delegate to the 1978 Tennessee Constitutional Convention. Baugh has three children and one grandchild who all live in Williamson County.
He was handed the task of weighing the findings in the Memphis mayoral blackmail plot by the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference. Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons asked the conference to hand the case to another prosecutor because of conflict-of-interest issues.
With TBI agents already having begun to put in legwork on the case, they may choose one of several ways to keep Baugh up to date before he starts his own decision-making process.
"Generally, once we're asked to investigate, our agents will go to work and update (the prosecutor) periodically," said TBI spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson. "We may have legal questions that we need to ask, or we may just want to confer with them about a particular issue. Some district attorneys prefer not to know anything until the case is finished.
"Once we've completed our investigation, we'll turn the entire case file over to the district attorney, and he will make a decision on what kind of action is needed, if any."
Most, but not all, such cases then go before a grand jury, she added. Baugh won't be part of an investigative team, per se; he'll review the case file apparently with the help of the other lawyer at his firm, as needed.
Bailey - speaking by cell phone on his way to Nashville to meet with Smith Monday - said his client soon will begin a work-release program in Nashville.
"Let me also say this: there is no question in my mind that Miss Smith has done the right thing by coming forward and revealing what she knew about the activities of the other people who were engaging her to ... go after Mayor Herenton," Bailey said.
Bailey is the son of former Shelby County Commissioner and fellow attorney Walter Bailey. His client's claims - and the well-connected men she accused of hatching the plot - remain a closely watched wildcard in the unfolding mayoral race.
Smith said Memphis attorney Richard Fields, real estate developer Nick Clark, car dealer Russell Gwatney and FBI agent Bob Reicht had devised a plan to embarrass the mayor.
Meanwhile, following through with a promise he's made for several months - never mind the attempt to keep him out of the race - Herenton filed for an unprecedented fifth consecutive term Tuesday.
Bailey said Smith has tangible evidence to bolster her claims and more revelations that she hasn't made public yet.
"I certainly am aware of some things," he said. "When I got involved in the case, she still had a violation of probation warrant on her, and so I did like most criminal defense lawyers would do and immediately shut everything down until we could get that part over with.
"Now that that has been disposed of, I am now orchestrating her cooperation in the investigation."