Gibbons’ Pressure Tactics Outed G’town Pols

By Bill Dries

The controversy over the Germantown ballot endorsing Gary Pruitt, Frank Uhlhorn and Mike Palazzolo in the town’s three alderman races underscores the power the local GOP ballot has in Shelby County outside the Memphis city limits.

It also underscores an attitude of dealing with such controversies outside a court of law but squarely in the political limelight.

Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons decided not to prosecute Pruitt, Uhlhorn or Palozzolo as long as they publicly acknowledged that they had paid for and distributed the ballot.

“As best I can tell, candidates on both sides of this issue are not totally pleased with how we handled it, which tells me we probably did about the right thing,” Gibbons told The Daily News.

Oh no, not I

All three candidates had disclosed paying for the direct mail piece in financial disclosure reports filed last week. But there was no indication on the ballot as to who paid for it, which is a legal requirement.

Their ballot bore a passing resemblance to the official Shelby County Republican Party ballot. But the local GOP had opted not to make any endorsements in the three nonpartisan races for the Board of Aldermen.

“We are satisfied with the DA’s finding,” local party chairman Bill Giannini said.

“The Republican Party of Shelby County’s only motive in this entire situation has been to make sure that voters know that ballot was not issued by us.”

Candidates Donna Chandler Newman and Mark Billingsley remained outraged that the admission came only after early voting had ended in an election in which early voting set a record in Shelby County.

“We are not done with this issue,” Newman said the day before Election Day in Shelby County.

Attorney James F. Arthur III, of Glankler Brown PLLC, representing Newman and Billingsley, was critical of Gibbons’ investigation of the matter. He estimates 7,000 of the ballots were mailed to Germantown households.

“It utterly fails to address the misrepresentation that the culpable candidates are endorsed by the Republican Party,” he said in a written statement.

Arm-twisting time

In the 12 exclusively Germantown precincts, 41 percent of the 35,391 registered voters cast early ballots. Palazzolo was the only one of the three candidates involved who took the early vote. He beat Newman in the overall vote. Uhlhorn and Pruitt lost the early vote just as they lost the overall combined vote – Uhlhorn losing to Billingsley.

Gibbons said prosecuting the case would have been difficult and it would have been a lot of effort for a maximum $50 fine for each as punishment if they were convicted. Instead he gave Pruitt, Uhlhorn and Palazolla an ultimatum – publicly acknowledge they issued the ballot or face prosecution. They made the public acknowledgement Friday, the day after early voting ended.

“My main objective was to make sure that the voters in Germantown, the public, understood who was behind this before Election Day. … The alternative was to proceed with prosecution – a class B misdemeanor – a $50 fine if we prevailed,” Gibbons told The Daily News. “We would not have disposed of the matter until after the election. I’m confident they would have entered not guilty pleas. … There’s no guarantee we would have won in the end because of their defense that it was inadvertent.”

Giannini agreed with Gibbons’ strategy.

“I can tell you plenty of candidates if they thought the only thing that stood between them and victory was a class B misdemeanor – and a $50 fine, they’d sign up all day long,” he said. “That is not a discouragement. Letting voters know that they issued this ballot very well may have backfired on one or more of these candidates.”


It wasn’t the only ballot controversy of the election season.

The day before the election, Gibbons’ office concluded its investigation of a complaint by Shelby County Board of Commissioners member Mike Ritz about campaign signs at early voting sites urging citizens to vote no on both county charter amendments. Circuit Court Clerk Jimmy Moore told The Daily News he and Juvenile Court Clerk Steve Stamson were among those who had the 200 or so signs printed and distributed.

Gibbons found no reason to prosecute Moore or Stamson for campaign law violations.

“There’s a loophole in state law,” he told The Daily News. “State law provides that there has to be a disclaimer on literature of a candidate. However, literature either in support or opposition to a referendum is not covered by that law.”

But Gibbons said Moore and any others involved in the effort will be required to include the expense on their campaign finance reports filed with the state.

And a version of the official Shelby County Democratic Party ballot urged Democrats to vote no on all referenda on the ballot, which included eight Memphis charter amendments and two Shelby County charter amendments. Local party chairman Keith Norman claimed it was a mistake and County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, a vocal advocate of the instant runoff voting city charter amendment, paid to have the printed ballots redone by blocking out the offending section. The ballot was mailed and distributed at early polling sites.