VOL. 122 | NO. 217 | Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Thompson Indicted for Extortion and Mail Fraud
By Bill Dries
A federal grand jury Tuesday indicted former Shelby County Commissioner Bruce Thompson on one count of extortion and three counts of mail fraud.
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.
Thompson, 48, is expected to turn himself in today for a hearing before a U.S. Magistrate judge. If Thompson’s case follows that of most other public corruption cases, the government is not expected to oppose his release on his own recognizance. Each count is punishable by a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Thompson served one term on the County Commission, from 2002-2006, and opted not to seek re-election. The charges deal with his tenure on the commission. They allege that he used his office to extort $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.”
When asked whether Thompson was allegedly working with school board members who haven’t been charged or whether Thompson allegedly acted alone, Kustoff said, “I’ve gone through the facts as we can discuss them.” 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.
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. It 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 who were on the board when the contract was up for discussion – 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 Kirby 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.
FBI Special Agent My Harrison, who heads the Memphis office, said the investigation is continuing and part of a recent focus on public corruption.
“What can I say? What can I possibly say other than same game, different name,” Harrison said. “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.”
Thompson, running as the Republican nominee, won the District 5 seat on the County Commission in a 2002 showdown with Democratic nominee Joe Cooper. Thompson’s campaign emphasized Cooper’s checkered past, including a federal conviction and four-month prison sentence in the 1970s for misapplication of bank funds. Cooper was a commissioner at the time.
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.
Since the 2002 election, Cooper became a government informant in the bribery cases against city council member Edmund Ford and former city council member Rickey Peete. Cooper agreed to record conversations with each after he was caught helping drug dealers launder money through car sales. Cooper has pleaded guilty to a money laundering charge and is awaiting sentencing. Peete pleaded guilty to an extortion charge and is to be sentenced today. Ford has maintained his innocence and is awaiting trial.