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VOL. 122 | NO. 206 | Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Prosecutor Nears End Of Herenton Sex Plot Investigation

By Andy Meek

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BY AND BY: The special prosecutor investigating an alleged blackmail plot against Mayor Willie Herenton appears to be moving closer to some answers in the months-old case. -- Photo By Andy Meek

Back in July, the special prosecutor investigating an alleged blackmail plot against Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton insisted in an interview with The Daily News that he'd get to the bottom of things.

And Joe Baugh, the former district attorney of Williamson County, now appears close to wrapping up that probe, more than one person with knowledge of the case has said.

Since the scandal became public about four months ago, Baugh has met with officials from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation several times and sat in on key interviews. Two TBI agents, neither of whom is from West Tennessee, have been assigned to help Baugh investigate the case.

Work and play

Baugh recently ventured to Memphis to meet various figures connected to the matter. The trip wasn't all work; before returning to his law practice on the town square in Franklin, Tenn., Baugh also paid a visit to local sites, including Charles Vergos' The Rendezvous, the barbecue eatery Downtown.

Though he does not avoid questions about certain details of the investigation, Baugh stays mostly tight-lipped about its progress thus far. His assessment is terse and unrevealing.

"If somebody's committed a crime," he said, "there will be charges."

The last time Baugh met with TBI officials was two or three weeks ago. His investigation appears far enough along that multiple sources said its outcome likely will be known in about a month.

The investigation sprang from claims made in June by a former Memphis strip club waitress who revealed that a secret band of local power brokers had approached her about embarrassing Herenton into staying out of the recent mayoral election.

Among other things, details of the plot recounted by Gwendolyn Smith led to rampant speculation about what effect the revelations would have on the mayor's race. Herenton himself put that line of questioning to rest Oct. 4 when he captured a fifth consecutive mayoral win with about 42 percent of the vote.

Discovery continues

But even though the goal of the alleged plot now may be a moot point, the investigation into whether any of the details rise to the level of criminality continues.

"I want to personally talk to some more people, and I've asked the TBI for more documents," Baugh said. "I just want to make sure I get all the facts I can get."

Richard Fields, a former Herenton confidant, is among the local figures who have been interviewed recently by the TBI. Fields, a local attorney well known for the civil rights cases he's taken, was alleged by Smith to have been deeply involved in the blackmail plot.

Several weeks ago, both a TBI agent and Baugh himself also interviewed Nick Clark, the real estate developer whom Smith said also had a role in supporting the scheme. About two weeks ago, TBI officials talked with Smith herself for at least the third time, her attorney Jay Bailey said.

Kristin Helm, spokeswoman for the TBI, said the agency is referring all questions about the case to Baugh.

For his part, Herenton has insisted publicly the alleged blackmail plot was immaterial to his election victory earlier this month. Some of the speculation it spawned included a belief that it might energize support among Herenton's voting base in a way that might not have been possible otherwise.

"We're all awaiting the results of the special prosecutor's report and to see whether or not any action will be taken," Bailey said.

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