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VOL. 124 | NO. 126 | Tuesday, June 30, 2009

City Poised to Pay Lee’s Legal Expenses

By Andy Meek

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Joseph Lee appears set to get the six-figure sum he’s long awaited to cover his legal expenses incurred during a 2007 federal corruption investigation.

The city of Memphis within the past few days sent him an agreement styled as an “offer of judgment” for $426,422.33.

That’s the exact amount of Lee’s legal tab for which he first sought payment in 2008 from Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division after prosecutors dropped charges against him. Lee, currently the deputy director of the city’s parks division, is the former president and CEO of MLGW.

He filed a notice in Shelby County Chancery Court that he intends to accept the city’s offer two days before Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton announced his resignation.

Herenton, who during his announcement foreshadowed the resignations of other city officials, has long been an ardent patron of Lee’s career. It’s not yet clear if Lee is one of those city officials who soon will depart.

Friendly gathering

Joseph Lee

Before his time at MLGW, Lee worked under Herenton as the city’s finance director, and he had lunch with the mayor after last week’s resignation announcement. Also reportedly at that lunch in a Whitehaven Piccadilly Cafeteria was longtime Herenton ally and Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism.

After he resigned from MLGW in 2007 amid the corruption scandal, Lee worked as a consultant for CDA, a Memphis company that provides security services for government agencies and private groups. The company is run by longtime Herenton friend Cliff Dates.

One year ago this month, Herenton zealously defended Lee in a press conference, calling the federal probe “shameful.”

Herenton also said at that time he believed prosecutors dropped their pursuit of Lee to focus on building a corruption case against himself. And he told reporters he’d be happy to have Lee back in city government, where Lee soon re-emerged in the parks division.

“It was an utter disgrace to witness what happened to a fine young man,” Herenton told reporters. “There was resentment I appointed him. Strong resentment. … This young man has been done a grave injustice.”

Payback time

It could not immediately be determined if city attorney Elbert Jefferson made the offer to Lee to dispose of the lawsuit at Herenton’s behest. But that wouldn’t be surprising because the mayor had begun clearing the decks even before announcing his resignation.

Herenton reportedly told division directors several days ago to get any lingering paperwork ready for him to sign.

The latest developments involving Lee trace their origins to the 2007 investigation. That aborted federal probe looked into allegations surrounding 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 charged Lee and Ford in 2007 with illegal favor-swapping. They claimed Lee’s leniency toward Ford was payback for the councilman’s support of Lee’s nomination to the top spot at MLGW in 2004.

When the charges were dropped last year with no explanation, Lee promptly asked MLGW to approve the payment of his attorneys’ fees. MLGW President Jerry Collins and the MLGW board OK’d the payment.

But the City Council, exercising its oversight of MLGW expenditures above a $25,000 threshold, voted against paying the fees. That prompted Lee to file his Chancery Court lawsuit last year, claiming the council’s vote prevented the completion of a properly arranged contract between Lee and MLGW.

Some council members didn’t support the payment because they thought it was too much money for about 17 months of legal representation. But last week’s court filings suggest Lee soon will get the full amount he sought all along.

PROPERTY SALES 116 288 17,672
MORTGAGES 143 337 20,372
BUILDING PERMITS 139 488 36,434
BANKRUPTCIES 43 158 11,322