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VOL. 124 | NO. 12 | Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Spence Defends Herenton in Federal Probe

By Andy Meek

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UNDER FIRE: Mayor Willie Herenton is being represented by attorney Robert Spence, of Joseph Lee corruption investigation fame. Herenton is talking in general terms about allegations surrounding personal business deals. -- FILE PHOTO/BILL DRIES

The attorney who represented former Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division president and CEO Joseph Lee in a federal corruption investigation now is representing Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton in a separate federal probe.

Herenton and attorney Robert Spence talked with The Daily News Friday about Herenton’s private business dealings, which are at the center of a federal grand jury investigation.

As part of that discussion, Herenton said city of Memphis attorney Elbert Jefferson has not yet completed an investigation into those private dealings, but that he’s confident it would uncover no ethics violations on his part.

“Given all of the negative publicity that had been directed at me as mayor and as an individual, I felt compelled to request that the chief ethics officer for the city of Memphis conduct an impartial investigation of certain allegations,” Herenton said. “And I felt that the public needed to receive factual information that could somehow negate all of the negative publicity that, in many instances, did not have a factual basis and that was saturated with biases and many distortions and omissions.”

Jefferson may finish his work by the end of this month, the mayor suggested, although he does not know for certain when the investigation will end.

In guarded terms

As The Daily News reported last Tuesday, the mayor asked Jefferson to open that investigation in October.

Meanwhile, Spence is not yet allowing the mayor to speak in any detail about the nature of the private dealings that have generated controversy.

They include the fact that Herenton had an option to buy the Downtown Greyhound bus station property while he was publicly pushing for the land to be redeveloped, possibly as a site for a new convention center, according to news reports.

Talk of a new convention center somewhere between AutoZone Park and the Beale Street Entertainment District fizzled in the fall because of its proposed multi-million-dollar price tag and the $100 million expansion in 2003 to the existing Memphis Cook Convention Center.

“In my opinion, the real estate transaction in question was private and did not involve my public office,” Herenton’s letter to Jefferson reads. “There was no public contracting or public funds involved in the Downtown Greyhound property. Reasonable efforts were made to exercise an abundance of caution and discretion in an effort to avoid any conflict of interest or public influence.”

Familiar terrain

Spence, himself a former city of Memphis attorney, represented and defended Lee for more than a year against charges and allegations related to the intersection of public and private interests.

Federal prosecutors in the summer of 2007 accused Lee of allowing former Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford Sr. to rack up some $16,000 in debt to MLGW without an interruption in utility services in exchange for

Ford’s alleged support of Lee’s nomination to head MLGW several years prior.

Outside the federal courthouse on the day Lee was indicted in 2007, Spence derided the charges against Lee as an “Alice in Wonderland indictment” that he would “scorch the earth” to defeat.

Ford was acquitted on separate corruption charges after a trial last summer. With little explanation, prosecutors announced soon after that acquittal they were dropping the case against Lee.

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