Memphis mayor focus of federal grand jury

By: By WOODY BAIRD, Associated Press Writer
By: By WOODY BAIRD, Associated Press Writer

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Mayor Willie Herenton is accustomed to mixing it up, be it in a boxing ring or in politics.

A talented Golden Gloves fighter in his youth, the 6-foot-6-inch Herenton has climbed between the ropes to exchange a few polite blows with former heavyweight champ Joe Frazier to raise money for the city's drug court. He also used an aggressive political style to become Memphis' first elected black mayor in 1992.

Five terms later, he still holds the title, though his latest bout could be his last.

Herenton, 68, is fending off federal prosecutors, who have impaneled a grand jury that is scrutinizing how city contracts are awarded and whether Herenton used his office to benefit financially through a real estate company he owns.

Grand juries work in secret, but the investigation appears to involve the mayor's dealings with Elvin W. Moon, a friend and businessman whose civil engineering firm has gotten road-design contracts with the city worth more than $700,000 over the past several years.

Based on who has been called to testify, questions by the 23-member panel also seem to be focusing on a plan to move a downtown Greyhound bus station to city-owned land near Memphis International Airport.

Records uncovered by The Commercial Appeal newspaper show Herenton acquired rights in 2004 to buy the land Greyhound would vacate and made more than $90,000 when the option was sold in 2006 with Moon's help.

Herenton won't talk about whether there even is an investigation but has sought to reassure his constituents by playing up his administration's honesty. He has asked top aides to swear in writing they haven't been improperly pressured in awarding city contracts.

In a letter published in The Commercial Appeal, Herenton said he hasn't let his private business conflict with his duties as mayor.

It isn't illegal, he wrote, "for the city mayor to own a business or to invest private capital in a private venture."

He told the Memphis Rotary Club that he knows how to balance his private and public dealings.

"I think I know where the line is," Herenton said. "I feel confident I have not crossed that line."

He declined an interview request from The Associated Press, saying his attorneys have counseled him not to comment.

Herenton squeaked out his first mayoral victory by 142 votes over the incumbent when black voter registration outpaced white registration in Memphis for the first time.

Since that election, the closest mayor's race in Memphis history, the voters have returned Herenton to office four times. While he's built a strong following across racial lines in a city of 650,000 that is now 63 percent black, he has also created a large core of detractors who accuse him of arrogance and derisively call him "King Willie."
Personable and friendly in private, Herenton the fighter has not suffered his detractors quietly in public.

One of his campaign slogans in 2007 was "Shake the Haters Off," and he set off a citywide stir by announcing that a group of rich, white businessmen tried to set him up for a sex scandal with a former cocktail waitress.

He accused federal prosecutors of siding with his enemies by failing to have a grand jury look into the woman's claims that she was paid to entice him.

After bribery charges were dismissed last year against Herenton's appointee to lead the city utility company, the mayor accused prosecutors, the news media and political enemies of trying to get him out of office "by any means necessary."

"You can't beat Willie Herenton in an election, so let's use the justice system and ink in the paper," he said.

Herenton has long been a champion of downtown revitalization, and the Greyhound move would clear prime real estate for development. It would be part of a $16.5 million project to build a new central station for the Memphis Area Transit Authority, which runs the city bus system.

Among witnesses called before the grand jury are Moon, top officers of the transit authority and Pete Aviotti, a special assistant to the mayor who has been involved in the Greyhound project. The mayor's son, financial consultant Rodney Herenton, has also testified.

Aviotti has refused to talk about his testimony, and phone calls to the mayor's son were not returned.

City Council Chairman Myron Lowery, who has not testified before the grand jury, said he was questioned by the FBI about the transit project and the Herenton administration's interest in getting it approved.

Lowery said the FBI wanted to know if anyone had pointed out any potential conflict of interests with the project. "That's what this is all about," he said. "We all knew what they were talking about."

Moon's lawyer, Robert Hutton, said his client testified before the grand jury in November.

"He's been assured he's not a target. He's a cooperating witness," Hutton said, declining to discuss Moon's testimony.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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