In an angry opening statement to Memphis City Councilmembers, MLGW President and CEO Joseph Lee defended his commitment to the utility and to its customers. His appearance shadows a new report, revealed today by independent attorneys hired by the Council, which found he helped Edmund Ford and violated utility policy.
The report, however, found no evidence of quid pro quo, or exchange of gifts or favors between Lee and Ford.
At the onset of the committee meeting, Lee's attorney, former City Attorney Robert Spence voiced concern that independent counsel, two lawyers from Memphis law firm, Glankler Brown, PLLC., would be questioning Lee directly. Spence claimed the meeting was convened by council members and that to allow Lee to be questioned by attorneys would be inappropriate.
He and others pointed out that the Council inquiry is happening concurrent with an ongoing FBI investigation.
Councilman E.C. Jones raised concerns that Spence was representing Lee, claiming some appearance of conflict because Spence is a former city attorney.
Joe Brown challenged that pointing out that Committee Chair Carol Chumney is a former member of Glankler Brown. Brown then condemned the whole inquiry, "You can't have an investigation over an FBI investigation. There's going to be penalties behind it. But it won't have an effect on me, because I wasn't involved."
"Everything that we do in here is tainted," said Brown.
Spence, meanwhile, continued to diminish the value of the session, explaining that Lee was appearing against his advice.
To resolve the conflict, Council Chair Tom Marshall offered to allow attorney Saul Belz to funnel questions through Marshall to Lee.
"I got a lot of doubts, Mr. Councilman. I got a whole lot of doubts about why i'm here in the first place," said Lee, in response to a farcical series of introductory questions from Belz, through Marshall, setting the stage for the inquiry.
"Mr. Chairman, it's almost impossible for me to conduct an investigation in this fashion," said Belz, after an argumentative exchange with Spence about whether or not Lee had a responsibility to answer questions about whether he was the target of an FBI investigation.
Marshall asked Lee to simply comply with direct questions. The Council committee took a 15-minute recess while the various lawyers negotiate a strategy for the session.
Upon re-convening the group, Marshall commenced with direct questioning of Lee about how Edmund Ford came to be a member of the On Track program, which protects indigent customers from account shut-off.
Lee says Ford was never a part of On Track, but was simply coded with a same set of numbers to indicate his account should not be shut-off.
Lee admitted that he treated Ford differently, but he also said he treated other customers with special attention. He added, upon facing the question, that no other customers had been "coded" as Ford was.
Marshall and Lee sparred over whether Lee had ever asked that anyone else not have their service disconnected.
Marshall asked Lee whether he protected Ford because Ford chaired the utility committee at the time.
Edmund Ford wanted to know who was paying the bill for outside lawyers because, he said, the Mayor's office told him they weren't a part of it. Keith McGee, Chief Administrative Officer for the City, indicated the City Attorney had been a part of engaging the outside lawyers and that the City of Memphis was paying for it.
E.C. Jones asked Lee if he ever spoke to Ford about his delinquent accounts. Lee said he hand-delivered a letter and that Ford promised to take care of his accounts.
"If you don't pay your cable bill, they shut your cable off," shouted Jones. "If you don't pay your telephone bill, they shut your telephone off." To Lee's claims he's compassionate, Jones challenged that competence is more important.
Chumney demanded order after the exchange between Jones and Lee became heated.
In a passionate response, Lee claimed he'd done a "damn good job," at which point Chumney stopped him and warned him about using profanity.
Edmund Ford spent several minutes criticizing the media and claiming his story had been mis-reported, that he only has one business and that he paid a bill even though it was sent to him in error.
Ford says he's "been working hard all my life and I've been mistreated all my life." He says the FBI business is "nonsense."
Ford then made a series of cryptic remarks to Marshall, angry about apparent media statements he says Marshall has made. He threatened Marshall saying if he doesn't "stop it today," he's going to write a letter asking Marshall to resign from the Council.
"I've never done anything wrong in my life," he said. "None of you are going to be able to hurt my credibility to the people that I serve."
"You sometimes just get tired of being used and abused. I'm 51 and I've been mistreated all my life," he shouted.
Joe Brown continued to criticize council members for conducting a "parallel" investigation, suggesting that some of his colleagues would be charged with obstruction of justice.
"Really Mr. Lee, you shouldn't be here today," said Brown.
Jack Sammons began asking questions with a disclaimer: "We're not here today to discuss my colleague Edmund Ford."
Instead, he shifted to questions reflecting the public's view of MLGW and greater credibility issues. He called the ongoing proceedings a circus and said, "we've been here for two hours and have heard a total of twelve minutes of questions."
"We've got a major crisis in our City and the focus in our community is aimed at Beale and Main Street, rather than the Memphis Tigers," he said.
"When we allow some people to not pay their bill, it's in essence a tax on those of us who do pay our bills."
Sammons pointed to a roster of ratepayers facing potential shutoff and cited a case of an MLGW employee with a wife dealing with a brain tumor. According to a notation, that ratepayer had been notified of pending shut-off.
Sammons reiterate the outrage that he says exists in the greater community about apparent inequities.
Chumney asked a series of questions about utility protocol and inquired as to whether policies would be changed. Lee indicated a review is underway.
Council members finished their questions and resolved to delay two weeks before taking further action.
Chumney asked the Council to consider - during the next two weeks - supporting a motion to accept Lee's resignation and to ask the Mayor to do the same. She suggested that since the Council's support was initially required to support Lee's original appointment, the Council may have the authority to accept his resignation.
to read a letter written by MLGW Board Member Nick Clark about Joseph Lee's refusal to testify before the Council.