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VOL. 130 | NO. 190 | Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wharton’s Accomplishments Weighted With Controversy

By Bill Dries

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It’s a set of events just about any incumbent would envy during a re-election bid.


Overnight riverboat cruises on the Mississippi River picked up just as Beale Street Landing opened in mid-2014. In late April, the long-dormant Pyramid reopened as a Bass Pro Shops megastore with a hotel and other attractions.

This week, Memphis secured a $30 million federal grant that will complete the city’s bid to convert Foote Homes, the last of its large public housing projects, to a mixed-use, mixed-income development called South City.

And Tuesday, Sept. 29, the day after the Foote Homes announcement, city leaders and developers kicked off the recession-delayed redevelopment of the Universal Life Insurance building. It’s a building of symbolic importance to the city’s enduring quest for minority business and the growth of black wealth in a city with a majority African-American population.

“Isn’t this a great day?” incumbent Mayor A C Wharton asked beneath a tent on the parking lot at Danny Thomas Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue as a light rain fell.

But Wharton clearly isn’t enjoying the run of events less than two weeks from election day.

The immediate cause is the controversy over an $880,000 contract with the Carter-Malone Group for public engagement, part of the $4.5 million contract Taser International has with the city for police body cameras and related technology.

The marketing firm is owned by former county commissioner Deidre Malone, who is managing Wharton’s re-election effort.

Malone says it is a contract between her company and Taser that doesn’t involve the city. Taser, according to documents the company has released, notified the city in August of the contract.

Wharton had city attorney Herman Morris at hand Tuesday to respond, and Morris was specific and unequivocal.

“There is no conflict of interest,” Morris said. “She is not an employee of the city. She is obviously active in the election but she also runs a business. That business had a right to contract with anyone. We don’t review. We don’t examine sub-contracts between our contracts and their subs.”

Asked about the perception, Morris replied, “We operate under what is legal and lawful. It is legal and lawful.”

The controversy had been following Wharton over several days, including Monday’s announcement about the Foote Homes grant.

“I’ve asked (chief administrative officer) Jack Sammons to pull together a complete written timeline,” Wharton responded at Monday’s event.

As the questions continued, Wharton added, “I knew nothing in advance.”

And when the queries still persisted, he said, “I’ve said it once and I won’t keep saying it again, but again I want to give you all of the facts at one time.”

Wharton’s aides intervened to prevent further questioning as the mayor went from the Downtown event to Southaven for the funeral of Memphis musician Ben Cauley.

The day before, at Sunday’s NAACP mayoral forum at First Baptist Church-Broad, the contract never came up during the program. But questions were waiting as Wharton left the church.

“There’s not much I can add,” he said. “It was a private contract which did not come before me. … I’ve not seen that contract.”

Wharton again pleaded other events on his schedule and left.

What plagues Wharton beyond the speeches at groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings is a running series of controversies that have nothing to do with the accomplishments marked by such events.

Wharton’s major challengers, city council members Jim Strickland and Harold Collins, have taken aim at those details left untended and surprises that shouldn’t have been surprises as they define themselves for voters.

Collins referred to them as “jack-out-of-the-box surprises” last week as he commented on the body cameras contract controversy.

Wharton’s legendary patience hasn’t snapped – at least not in public – but it does seem frayed.

The defense attorney and former Shelby County public defender prides himself on maintaining his cool as well as never responding with a “no comment.”

He usually has some comment, even if it ends with him saying he can’t say anything else. And Wharton’s crammed schedule routinely runs behind in part because he has a habit of answering all media questions in some way until the questions run out.

Before the body camera contract controversy was the resignation of Robert Lipscomb, his Housing and Community Development division director, as Memphis Police investigate allegations of sexual misconduct. U.S. Housing and Urban Development officials also are looking over how Lipscomb handled its money at HCD and at the Memphis Housing Authority, where Lipscomb is on paid suspension from his other job as executive director.

Lipscomb’s name was never mentioned at Monday’s Choice Neighborhoods announcement or Tuesday’s Universal Life groundbreaking – at least in the speeches. But Lipscomb did come up in conversations in the crowd at each event.

Wharton is not alone in his fatigue with the pace of the campaign.

The 2015 mayor’s race is unusual in the sustained contact among Wharton and his challengers through the start of the early voting period. It’s also unusual because an incumbent mayor usually doesn’t give challengers that many face-to-face encounters.

The campaign has featured so many debates and forums featuring all three that they long ago ran out of the amiable small talk that was a feature of the earlier appearances.

PROPERTY SALES 57 280 1,209
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BUILDING PERMITS 158 699 2,751