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VOL. 124 | NO. 85 | Friday, May 1, 2009

Green Paper Trail Leads to Ware

By Bill Dries

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SLEDGEHAMMER: Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons and Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin (not shown) announce the indictments of eight employees of the county clerk’s office. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

It hasn’t been a good week and a half for City Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware.

She celebrated her birthday last week with a custom she picked up from a caterer delivering the council members their lunch at City Hall. During a break in committee action, as reporters and other council members wondered about several $1 bills pinned to her red jacket, Ware explained that she had never heard of the custom before but was game for it.

City Council attorney Allan Wade rendered a legal opinion later in the week that Ware hadn’t violated any ethics regulations by accepting the gifts pinned to her jacket.

A week later, Ware was admitted to Methodist University Hospital with undisclosed medical problems as a criminal probe of the Shelby County Clerk’s office reached a critical phase.

Eight men out

The Shelby County grand jury Wednesday indicted on bribery charges eight employees of the office that issues car tags and car titles. Those indicted are Janice Garrett, Millicent Rogers, Patricia Reid, Rita Jones, Anita Porter, Seprice Crews, Julia Marshall and Darlene McKee.

Garrett, Rogers and Reid are accused of taking bribes from Ware on three different occasions last year, with the understanding that each “would choose to register a vehicle without the vehicle having gone through inspections required by the city of Memphis or without the vehicle having other proper documentation required to register the vehicle.”

It’s not clear if Ware was seeking to register three separate cars or the same car. Ware is one of several council members who routinely complain about the car inspection requirement that applies to city of Memphis residents, but not to those living in Shelby County outside the city.

But, at least at this point, she is not charged with any wrongdoing.

“I think the indictment spells out her role pretty well,” Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons said. “The investigation is ongoing.”

“I want to emphasize that this is not necessarily the end of this process at all. In fact, in some ways it may very well be just the beginning,” Gibbons said. “We’re dealing with employees who are supposed to be public servants. They are supposed to be serving the public’s interest. … We will do everything we can under our state law to hold them accountable.”

He also said County Clerk Debbie Stamson has cooperated fully in the investigation.

Road to know Ware

“(Ware) is still a council member,” Council chairman Myron Lowery said in a written statement Wednesday. “And we will allow the judicial system to handle this matter.”

Barbara Swearengen Ware

First elected to the council in 1994, Ware allowed a developer to pay part of her tuition for a Leadership Memphis class in 1998. The organization returned the check to Ware and she returned it to the developer at the end of the year. The council’s attorney issued an opinion saying it was not illegal.

She was also called to testify before a federal grand jury in 2006 that was investigating the council vote on a billboard zoning matter that resulted in bribery charges against then-council members Rickey Peete and Edmund Ford. Peete pleaded guilty and a jury acquitted Ford. Ware was never charged and insisted she took no money.

Green crush

Clerks Crews, Marshall and McKee are accused of taking bribes from representatives of Unique Auto Sales and Fleet Equipment last year to process multiple transactions, including car titles. The multiple transactions are a violation of office policy but are not against the law.

“Under the office policy, so you don’t have a back up in the lines, only a certain number of transactions are to be handled at one time,” Gibbons explained. “In return for financial payments, various employees agreed to let certain companies come in with many more transactions being handled at one time than was permissible.”

The clerk’s office locations have recently seen some longer lines than usual because of a switch from their old “green screen” computer system to a newer system.

Garrett, a clerical specialist for eight years in the clerk’s office, was fired in January after an investigation by the county attorney’s office. The findings of the report dealt with violations of county policy and not possible violations of the law. The findings of the report were referred to the Shelby County District Attorney General’s office.

The report led to the resignation of Charles Nichols, who had been chief administrative officer in the clerk’s office under Clerk Debbie Stamson. Nichols had been taking gift cards and other gratuities from car dealerships to get their titles processed quickly and bypass office safeguards. Those safeguards are in place to ensure stolen cars can’t have their titles changed to reflect a legitimate transfer of the property.

“Based on the information that we have, we have reason to believe that this was a practice that had been somewhat long-standing in the office,” Gibbons said.

Nichols was not among those charged this week. When asked if Nichols is cooperating in the criminal probe, Gibbons said he could not comment because the investigation is continuing.

Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin said the criminal probe began late last year.

“We received a criminal complaint from someone within the clerk’s office who was very instrumental in assisting us,” he said.

The investigation by the Organized Crime Unit involved some surveillance of the clerk’s office as well as interviews of 40 people and cost $56,000.

The OCU results were then turned over to the Tennessee Department of Revenue.

“The department of revenue then came in and followed the paper trail, so to speak,” Gibbons said. “As you can imagine, there’s a lot of paper trail to follow in a case like this.”

PROPERTY SALES 83 405 4,276
MORTGAGES 104 424 4,814
BUILDING PERMITS 148 883 10,151
BANKRUPTCIES 53 264 3,149