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VOL. 124 | NO. 6 | Friday, January 9, 2009

Council Frets Over Next Move in Lee Case

By Andy Meek

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DEFENSIVE TACTIC: Memphis City Council chairman Myron Lowery told fellow members this week the elected body might want to hire three or more lawyers in defending a lawsuit by former MLGW president and CEO Joseph Lee. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

In an attorney-client meeting this week, Memphis City Council chairman Myron Lowery laid out some options his fellow council members could pursue in defending themselves against a lawsuit filed last month by a former city official.

Lowery has spent a few weeks thinking about the defense against that suit, filed by former Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division president and CEO Joseph Lee. The recommendations Lowery presented to council members this week reflect the fact that responding to the suit represents a potentially tricky legal maze.

Lee’s suit, which he also filed against the city of Memphis, seeks more than $7 million in damages because the council would not allow MLGW to pay a $426,422 legal bill Lee accrued as the result of a 2007 federal corruption investigation. Lee named all 13 council members individually, meaning city policy allows them each to hire an attorney and have those expenses covered by the city, depending on the outcome of the case.

But the council chairman urged his colleagues this week not to go that route. One reason is it would leave Lee room to argue in court the council denied him a benefit they later gave to themselves.

Another is the cost associated with separate attorneys for all 13 council members.

“My recommendation was that perhaps we should get three or four attorneys, maybe two, for each side of the issue,” Lowery said. “During the past three weeks, I’ve talked with several attorneys pro bono to get advice from them, and I shared that advice with members of the council. Basically they agreed with (city attorney Elbert Jefferson) that we each do have the right to get our own attorneys.

“My recommendation to everyone was that we not do that, because that would be irresponsible. We have two opposing views on the council – one group that wanted to pay (Lee), and one that did not. And perhaps we should have maybe two attorneys on each side representing each council group.”

House divided

During the council’s last meeting of 2008, the matter of Lee’s suit was one of the final issues to be disposed of, and Lowery told his colleagues he would immediately seek out legal advice on how the council should proceed.

He’s now done that, but he’s also gone a step further.

The council chairman is hiring an attorney for himself, and it’s his hope that other council members who want to will join him in sharing that legal representation. Another attorney or two later could be enlisted to represent whichever council members did not join in.

Lowery has chosen Richard Glassman, a partner at Glassman, Edwards, Wade, and Wyatt PC, to be his attorney. Each council member was sent a letter stating that Glassman could represent additional council members also.

One thing that already is clear is a strategic move the council is likely to make right off the bat.

“I think the first priority will be that whatever attorneys are selected, the council members need to be removed from the lawsuit as individuals,” Lowery said. “That is the priority. The council acted in its normal, everyday way of functioning as a legislative body making a decision.

“We did not act as individuals, therefore we should not be sued as individuals or held personally or individually liable. And I think many legal minds will agree with that statement.”

Council member Joe Brown told fellow council members the same thing on the day the group learned about the suit last month.

“This hole is too deep,” Brown said. “There was six of us who voted for (paying the fees). And this six should have one attorney. The seven (who did not) should be in court. This is serious business.

“I want to tell all you young council members – this can jeopardize your family. This suit is going to be won. It’s going to be no contest. I’ve got a lot at stake. I don’t know what each one of you has got at stake.”

Dramatic tension

One person who does not agree the council should be tried as a group is Jackson, Miss., attorney Halbert Dockins. The suit he filed on behalf of Lee said the decision to sue the council members individually was made for specific reasons.

“The defendants are also on record expressing comments that reveal a personal animus toward Joseph Lee,” the suit reads. “In fact, several defendants revealed that they have been blessed with some extraordinary paranormal ability which allows them to personally determine guilt or innocence (a talent which will be most assuredly tested in this lawsuit) and that, as a result of this ability, they were not constrained by the outcome of the case as they had personally determined that Joseph Lee was guilty.”

The lawsuit over Lee’s legal fees stems from a federal investigation that led him to resign from his position at MLGW. That probe looked into why former Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford Sr. was able to rack up some $16,000 in unpaid bills to MLGW without an interruption in utility services.

Prosecutors believed that leniency was the result of Ford’s support of Lee’s selection by the City Council in 2004 to head MLGW. After Ford was acquitted earlier this year in a separate corruption trial, prosecutors dropped the charges against Lee.

Lee set the current drama over his legal fees in motion soon after the charges were dropped. Following the dismissal, he immediately sought the payment of his attorney’s fees.

PROPERTY SALES 27 150 2,415
MORTGAGES 57 228 2,835
BUILDING PERMITS 157 441 6,509
BANKRUPTCIES 61 133 1,920