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VOL. 121 | NO. 243 | Monday, December 18, 2006

Self-Appointed Watchdog Posts Campaign Contributions To Web Site

By Andy Meek

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OPEN GOVERNMENT: If a local observer has his way, campaign contributions to lawmakers, such as those on the Shelby County Commission, will be published on his Web site for all to see. -- Photo By Andy Meek

The words of FBI special agent My Harrison at a press conference about the latest public corruption scandal in Memphis resonated with the force of a shotgun blast.

"Tap, tap, tap - you never know where we're going to be," Harrison said on Nov. 30, the day two Memphis City Council members were implicated in a bribery scandal. The multi-agency investigation that triggered the press conference, "Main Street Sweeper," is continuing, she added.

One thing it's also doing is inspiring John Harvey, a sheriff's deputy for more than 30 years, to forge full speed ahead with an Internet project on his Web site, www.votinginmemphis.com. Bribes, payoffs, lobbying, favors - they all play some part in the recent complaints against councilmen Edmund Ford and Rickey Peete, so Harvey is trying to collect campaign donation information for all local elected officials and make it readily available through his site.

In other words, to paraphrase FBI agent Harrison, "Click, click, click - we'll try to show you where they've been."

"The more I've been looking at these campaign donation lists, one of the things I've seen is a constant theme," said Harvey, a failed candidate for Shelby County Sheriff in the last election cycle. "Some of the people I don't think need to be involved in the political process are heavily involved in it.

"One of the things I hope to achieve with this project is to allow the general public to see who's contributing to whom, and hopefully that will force politicians to stop taking money from certain people."

In defense of cyber-sleuthing

The goal is to make government more transparent by illuminating previously hard-to-find - and, presumably, easy-to-bury - data, making it accessible with the click of a button. Not that any of it is currently being withheld; for 25 cents a printed page, anyone can trek to the office of the Shelby County Election Commission and see who's funding whom.

But Harvey's project, one of several voting-related watchdog efforts he's sponsored mostly via his Web site, taps into a larger truth in the wake of "Main Street Sweeper," "Tennessee Waltz" and other memorably named investigations into the activities of public officials.

So does a memo circulated within the past few days by city council member Dedrick Brittenum, who suggested the council consider televising its meetings and make more public appearances. And so does a comment made by council member Jack Sammons, who groused recently that he couldn't even give away custom-made calendars with council members' photos on them.

Harvey recently sent an e-mail to all 13 council members and all 13 Shelby County Commission members, asking them to send him their information regarding campaign donations electronically.

"We are working on a project at votinginmemphis.com that, ultimately, will allow all citizens of Shelby County to review the campaign disclosures of all local elected officials," the e-mail read. "We believe a transparent government is the best government, and by posting this data, it helps keep our government transparent."

Open and honest - for a price

So far, Harvey has heard from county commission newcomer Mike Carpenter, who promised to send his data. City council member Jack Sammons also has responded.

To input the data from public officials into his Internet site, Harvey is relying on the help of volunteers such as Joe Saino, a former Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division board member and another self-appointed local watchdog. Saino - along with financial planner John Lunt and others - spearheaded the recent drive that led to the creation of the Memphis Charter Commission. The commission's ultimate goal is to overhaul the more than 500-page document that regulates city government.

For Harvey's project, acquiring the data on elected officials and uploading it isn't a quick process.

"It takes a while, because we have to go down and buy the information," Saino said.

That's even though voters already may obtain the information electronically on state-level office-holders in Tennessee. Locally, the election commission is only required to make the information available via hard copy, meaning Average Joes have to pay to make copies.

To get the information, "You basically go down to the election commission and request it," said election commissioner Richard Holden. "If you want to pull the official file and take it back to your office to look at, the candidate would be alerted that you did that. But if you just stood there with a notepad and pen, they would not."

Foot-dragging and partisanship

Holden, incidentally, might have some company on the election body soon. A movement is afoot to get Harvey onto the election commission, something he says he's accepted only reluctantly.

"It's not something I really want to do, but it's something I think needs to be done," said Harvey, whose Web site also is a clearinghouse on what he sees as corruption of all stripes in city and county government.

"The Democrats on the election commission pretty much think everything's great," Harvey said. "The Republicans on the election commission are just in a go along-get along mode, far as I can tell, and that bothers me."

Harvey is continuing to add information on contributions to elected officials to his Web page daily. Recent additions include those for former State Sen. Roscoe Dixon, who was sentenced in October to 63 months in federal prison for taking bribes during the Tennessee Waltz sting.

U.S. House Rep. Harold Ford Jr. and Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell also are included on the site.

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