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VOL. 129 | NO. 141 | Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Cohen Goes On Offense In Wilkins Challenge

By Bill Dries

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For weeks, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen and Ricky Wilkins, his challenger in the Aug. 7 Democratic Congressional primary have been talking about each other without necessarily directly talking about each other or doing so at length

With early voting underway and about two weeks to election day that changed dramatically Monday, July 21, as Cohen criticized Wilkins’ basic campaign narrative.

“He keeps saying that he … came back to help the poor and to work for the poor. If you want to work for the poor you work for legal services. You work for the public defender or you’re a community activist like Barack Obama,” said Cohen, who like Wilkins is an attorney. “He went to work for Burch, Porter and Johnson – a great law firm. But they represent Illinois Central (railroad). They represent Standard Oil. They represent Sun Trust Bank. They represent all of the big corporate interests in America. If you want to help the poor you don’t go to work there.

Then he criticized Wilkins private law practice and Wilkins work with the Texas-based collections law firm Linebarger Goggan Blair and Sampson.

“When you leave that firm you don’t get a $3.2 million finder’s fee for delinquent property tax payers and collect from the poorest people in the community who are behind in the worst housing crisis in the history of the country and then charge double and in a consent decree in federal court pay back $8 or $9 million,” Cohen said in an interview at a Monday evening fundraiser. “I could only go so long listening to these fairy tales.”

Wilkins said he makes no apologies for legal fees he collected as an attorney.

I’ve had a very successful legal practice as I started practicing law 24 years ago. I’m very proud of it,” he said as he talked of his clients. “They’ve compensated me for my services as all lawyers get compensated when they do a good job for their clients.”

The consent decree Cohen referred to was a $7.4 million settlement of a class action lawsuit in 2013 against the Linebarger firm filed by Memphis residents who claimed they overpaid what they owed, specifically in the form of the 20 per cent fee Linebarger added for collecting the delinquent taxes.

“We want to talk about the issues that confront Memphis and his failure to address those issues as we go down the road,” Wilkins said of Cohen. “If he wants to talk about my legal practice and fees that my firm has earned, from my perspective that simply only speaks to the fact that he recognizes his failure in terms of addressing issues for the 9th District.”

Wilkins also points to his tenure as chairman of the Memphis Housing Authority board since the early 1990s when the city began pursuing a policy of demolishing the city’s large public housing projects and converting them to mixed use-mixed income developments.

“My work throughout the public housing arena is evident throughout the landscape of Memphis,” he said. “I’m very proud of what I’ve done professionally and civically.”

Meanwhile, Wilkins’ campaign has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission over Cohen’s radio ad from the Fourth of July holiday – an ad voiced by a character named Pearl that Wilkins and others have criticized as racial pandering and offensive.

The complaint seeks an FEC investigation into the tag line of the ad in which Cohen says he approves the message, as required by federal law.

Cohen said he ordered the radio ad pulled before it was to air but it went on the air anyway on two radio stations.

“Mr. Cohen cannot state on his ad that he approved the message and then when he receives public criticism for the insulting and offensive nature of the ad, claim that he really didn’t approve the message,” Wilkins said. “Think about it this way, if you take Mr. Cohen’s logic any candidate could put any type of offensive message out into the mainstream and then simply throw their media team under the bus if they receive criticism for it, like Mr. Cohen is doing.”

Cohen said he takes the complaint personally.

“He’s been making allegations about my character and the way I make decisions in politics which are absolutely false,” he added. “I’ve worked hard all my life. This has been my career and for somebody to question it is like saying something about your children.”

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