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VOL. 123 | NO. 59 | Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Churchwell Trial Set for Mid-April

By Bill Dries

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Dennis Churchwell, the one-time landlord of former Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford, is scheduled to go to trial April 14 on federal perjury charges.

U.S. District Court Judge Bernice Donald set the trial date last week and Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Laurenzi estimated it will take about a week.

Churchwell is accused of lying to a federal grand jury about his taxes and about an alleged rent-for-influence swap with Ford.

Ford faces two sets of corruption charges in federal court. Neither of the cases involves the allegation made in Churchwell's indictment that Ford helped him get a zoning variance in exchange for letting Ford not pay the rent on his Whitehaven mortuary.

Meanwhile, court documents show Churchwell's defense will involve a recent mental evaluation ordered by the court on the advice of his attorney, Mark McDaniel.

Is he or isn't he?

The psychological evaluation by Dr. Joseph C. Angelillo of Germantown Psychological Associates PC included a battery of tests. Angelillo concluded Churchwell has "serious cognitive limitations."

"Mr. Churchwell had obvious difficulty understanding what he read, was unable to perform only the simplest of abstractions, and was able to remember only four digits at a time. (His) level of performance on the test of memory and learning was also very impaired," the evaluation submitted to the court reads. "It appears clear that Mr. Churchwell's abilities to acquire strategies for learning new information are at or somewhat below his intellectual performance. Because of Mr. Churchwell's level of professional success, it may be tempting to assume that his level of intellectual functioning is higher than what his scores reflect. However, such an assumption is indeed irrational."

The report concludes Churchwell, who is 64 years old, has a 9-year-old child's ability to apply abstract principles to social situations.

"As far as the relationship of the current findings to the charges that Mr. Churchwell faces, numerous research studies point out the potential unreliability in the testimony of those with significant deficits in expressive and receptive communication skills," the report notes before saying Churchwell might be prone to agree with any question he is asked. "Further, one manifestation of such a tendency is that of responding yes to both an original and a reverse form of the same question."

Churchwell and his wife are Whitehaven business and property owners. The prosecution is expected to counter the evaluation by arguing that the ability to manage such business affairs means Churchwell is mentally competent to understand the difference between right and wrong.

Churchwell dropped out of school after the eighth grade. The report notes he has "no past legal or psychological history."

Neither side would comment after last week's hearing, which included a closed bench conference. Churchwell didn't participate in the conference.

Reasons for speculation

Churchwell recently sold the property involved in the zoning change, which, like the Ford Mortuary, is on Elvis Presley Boulevard. With the change in zoning, he was permitted to store used heavy equipment despite objections from neighbors.

The indictment contends Ford voted for the zoning change and lobbied for it in exchange for Churchwell not collecting monthly rent from Ford. But neither Ford nor Churchwell is charged with any wrongdoing for the alleged scheme, which both have denied.

Churchwell is accused of lying about it during his federal grand jury testimony.

Ford is charged in two separate cases pending in U.S. District Court.

One alleges that he took bribes from former Shelby County Board of Commissioners member Joe Cooper to vote for a billboard zoning matter. Cooper was cooperating with the FBI at the time and recorded conversations with Ford as well as former City Council member Rickey Peete. Peete since has pleaded guilty and is serving a four-year-and- three-month prison sentence.

The second set of charges against Ford alleges that Ford swapped thousands of dollars in overdue utility bills on his mortuary in exchange for using his council vote and political influence on behalf of former Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division president Joseph Lee. Lee also is charged in the case.

PROPERTY SALES 28 290 16,197
MORTGAGES 33 165 10,087
BUILDING PERMITS 184 608 38,544
BANKRUPTCIES 33 125 7,597