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VOL. 122 | NO. 218 | Thursday, November 15, 2007

Thompson's One-Time Promises Implode With Indictments

By Bill Dries

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He ran for the Shelby County Board of Commissioners five years ago on the slogan "It's time for government to mean business." And Bruce Thompson's campaign literature pledged, "I believe public officials should use their position to save money for the taxpayers, not make money for themselves."

It was a not-so-subtle reminder that the Democratic nominee he was running against, former County Commissioner Joe Cooper, had gone to prison in the 1970s on a federal bank fraud charge.

Thompson, the Republican nominee, won the 2002 general election for County Commission District 5 and served one four-year term.

Louder than words

During his tenure, Thompson's chair became a symbol of his public stands on the 13-member body. He and commissioner Deidre Malone said new chairs the commission ordered were too costly. Both refused to have their old chairs replaced with the new ones.

His term ended during the severe political trauma of Operation Tennessee Waltz - the FBI corruption sting - and just a few months ahead of Operation Main Street Sweeper, the more localized FBI corruption investigation.

Tennessee Waltz included among those it snared fellow County Commissioner Michael Hooks. Main Street Sweeper's catalyst was Cooper.

A year and two months after he left the commission, Thompson is the latest local politician to show up on the Memphis federal court docket as a defendant. Thompson was indicted Tuesday on one count of extortion and three counts of mail fraud.

"What can I say? What can I possibly say other than same game, different name," said FBI special agent My Harrison, who heads the Memphis office. "We still have those who feel that what they do under cover of darkness - what they do in the back of the room won't come to light. As you can see, we are addressing public corruption no matter where it rears its ugly head."

Hefty allegations

Thompson, 48, was expected to turn himself in Wednesday for a hearing before a U.S. Magistrate judge and be released on his own recognizance. Each count he faces is punishable by a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The public corruption charges that name no other defendants came with just as many questions as answers - questions about possible involvement by others. U.S. Attorney David Kustoff said the grand jury probe is continuing, but he wouldn't be more specific.

The indictment alleges that Thompson used his position on the commission to extort a total of $270,750 from H&M Construction Co. Inc. and Salton-Fox Construction Co. LLC Joint Venture.

The companies had joined together starting in late 2004 seeking the contract to build three new Memphis city schools. They hired Thompson as a consultant for that effort. They got the contract worth nearly $47 million.

The indictment alleges that Thompson "would falsely represent to representatives of the joint venture ... that by reason of his position as a Shelby County commissioner, he had the ability to control the votes of members of the Memphis City School Board, in connection with the awarding of" the contract for the three schools. Thompson also, according to the indictment, "would falsely represent ... that he had made commitments to give campaign contributions to certain members of the Memphis City School Board."

The alleged use of Thompson's public office is critical in the charge, which means it is a violation of the federal Hobbs Act.

"I've gone through the facts as we can discuss them," Kustoff said when asked whether Thompson was allegedly working with school board members who haven't been charged or whether allegedly Thompson acted alone. He then noted that the indictment states $7,000 of the money allegedly went from Thompson to Kirby Salton of Salton-Fox Construction for campaign contributions.

"I think that's probably about as far as I can go right now, at this time," Kustoff said.

Thompson allegedly sent a $7,000 check to Kirby Salton on Nov. 16, 2004. H&M Construction sent Thompson a check for $233,750 dated March 31, 2005, and a second check for $30,242.56 on Oct. 6, 2005.

Hopping down the money trail

County government is the major funder of the city schools system locally. But the commission has no direct control over line items in the budget or the awarding of construction contracts by the school board. The commission approves an overall amount of funding in the property tax rate each year during budget deliberations.

The grand jury last month called three former school board members - Sara Lewis, Willie Brooks and Hubon Sandridge.

Wanda Halbert, who is giving up her school board seat following her election to the City Council in October, testified for three hours. She said later the grand jury asked about a $2,000 campaign contribution from Salton she claims was given without her knowledge to a campaign aide and that was somehow lost and never made it into her campaign fund.

Also testifying was City Council chairman Tom Marshall, whose architecture firm worked as a consultant to the school system on such projects.

To read our original story on Thompson's indictment, please see the Tuesday and Wednesday editions of The Daily News at www.memphisdailynews.com.

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