A friend of mine said recently when I told him about my recent experience with lack of transparency in a local government agency “Where there’s obstruction there’s fear. Where there’s fear there’s uncertainty and ignorance. Where there’s uncertainty and ignorance there’s a bloody mess.”
A TV reporter asked me yesterday about the possible Beale Street settlement between the City of Memphis and John Elkington. I told her that this is the text book case of the result and cost of lack of governmental transparency. Here is what I know about this matter.
- In 2005, as a result of my publicized open records request for Beale Street documents, I got a tip from a source that there were 17 boxes of Beale Street documents in a locked storage room at the City of Memphis Offices of Housing and Community Development at 701 N. Main.
- I called the then City Attorney, Sara Hall, and told her. She said that she could not go to 701 N. Main but she sent Elbert Jefferson (the future City Attorney) down there.
- He found the 17 boxes of documents as indicated. Ms. Hall called me to report this but said that she had to send the documents first to Ricky Wilkins for review before Wil Gotten and myself could review the documents.
- Several weeks later, we were allowed to go through the previously reviewed documents. We found a lot of quarterly financial reports and memos from Elkington to the City.
It was obvious to us then and now that Elkington furnished the required reports but as to their accuracy and completeness we have no way of knowing. There seemed to be an unwritten understanding of “don’t ask, don’t tell” between Beale Street and the City administration.
One thing is obvious. The lack of transparency of these documents and communications between Beale Street and the City has cost the taxpayers millions in legal fees (mostly to Ricky Wilkins), audits and possibly the taxpayers’ share of any Beale St. profits. The documents included a letter and financial statement written by Ricky Wilkins dated February 19, 1993 and an internal audit to Robert Lipscomb (Head of Housing and Community Development) dated July 8, 1992.
Does any of this lack of transparency sound familiar, does it sound anything like the Cornhusker Kickback or the Louisiana Purchase, just on a somewhat smaller scale? Absolute transparency won’t make saints out of politicians, but it will keep the taxpayers better informed.