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VOL. 128 | NO. 250 | Tuesday, December 24, 2013

FBI Questions Surprise Local Politicos

By Bill Dries

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As harsh as the criticism has been of the way the Shelby County Election Commission conducted elections in 2012, no one, including those who filed two Chancery Court lawsuits over the results, have said or presented proof it was intentional.

FBI agents are asking questions about the conduct of elections by the Shelby County Election Commission. The inquiry follows two audits, including a state audit.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

The harshest criticism has been incompetence.

That’s why word last week that FBI agents had contacted one election commissioner came as a surprise to those in the political community.

Election Commissioner Norma Lester confirmed in a mass email Friday, Dec. 20, that she has been contacted by the FBI “but advised not to disclose any information.”

“I have no knowledge where the investigation is going,” she added in the written statement.

Lester twice called for the firing of Shelby County Elections Administrator Richard Holden following a state audit critical of the conduct of local elections as well as two Chancery Court decisions in favor of candidates contesting 2012 election results.

Holden was also suspended and put on probation by the Election Commission in the wake of the 2012 election problems.

In the first court decision, all sides in a case by Millington leaders contesting the results of the 2012 sales tax referendum in Millington agreed to overturn the original certified results showing the tax question failed by three votes and instead show the tax hike was approved by voters.

The lawsuit and agreement approved by Chancellor Arnold Goldin followed instances of voters from outside Millington being allowed to vote on the sales tax question.

In the other lawsuit, Shelby County Schools board candidate Kenneth Whalum Jr. contested his loss in a 2012 school board race to Kevin Woods. Chancellor Kenny Armstrong ordered a new election based on the same general problems with voters within the school board district getting another district school board race on their ballots instead, and those outside the district being able to vote in the race between Woods and Whalum.

Armstrong’s order for a new election is on hold pending an appeal of the case.

Lester’s resolutions to fire Holden failed in 2-3 party line votes on the five-member Election Commission where Democrats, including Lester, are the minority party.

Holden is a former Republican Shelby County Election Commissioner.

The Tennessee Election Commission appointed local election commissions across the state in April based on separate caucuses of state legislators from each party by county.

Lester and all three Republican Shelby County Election Commissioners were reappointed. Democratic Commissioner George Monger, who had been the five-member body’s most vocal critic of Holden, was replaced by Democrat Anthony Tate.

The October 2012 audit by the Tennessee Comptroller’s audit division ordered by Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett said the Election Commission “demonstrated an inability to conduct elections without significant inaccuracies, including those identified in the 2012 elections.”

Those inaccuracies were voters getting ballots for the wrong district races just after the once-a-decade redistricting process was completed by the Shelby County Commission and the Tennessee Legislature.

But the same audit also concluded there was “no discernable evidence of intentional misconduct or other actions intended to affect or influence the election process or election outcomes in Shelby County.”

The primary culprit as defined in the audit was that Holden stopped his staff’s work on the redistricting, the process of changing voter records to reflect the new districts in which some voters found themselves with the new district lines.

An August draft audit by Shelby County government’s internal audit unit concluded less than 100 voter registration applications weren’t processed in 2012 in the run-up to that November’s presidential election, which is historically the most popular of Shelby County’s election cycles in terms of voter turnout.

Audits are not comprehensive reviews that explore every possible part of an organization. They are a sampling. So the voter registration problems were the result of a sample testing and not a comprehensive review.

The same draft report was critical of the election commission spending to hire temporary workers from a private company for the November 2012 elections when hiring through county government might have been less expensive.

By contacting Lester, the federal agents are following a pattern of contacting those most vocal in their criticism of a government agency or entity.

FBI agents contact many such critics with inquiries that never result in charges. Or the inquiries are part of what are wide-ranging investigations that cover a lot of ground initially as well as possibilities before they are either dropped or in which one element is pursued.

Word of the FBI activity came the same week that the Shelby County Commission approved on a 9-0 vote a resolution by Republican Wyatt Bunker expressing no confidence in Holden and calling on the local election commission to fire him.

Bunker’s resolution has prompted Memphis City Council member Myron Lowery to say that he will take a similar resolution to the council at its first meeting of the new year, Jan. 7.

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