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Posts Tagged ‘fraud’

I wanted to check up on Jericho, Arkansas. If you recall, I wrote about the town a few times last fall because the unarmed Assistant Fire Chief was shot by Jericho police during an argument between himself and the police chief in court. Jericho has a reputation as a speed trap, an over-abundant and over-eager police force for the town’s size, large gaps in its fiscal reporting, and a mayor accused of gross corruption. I was unable to reach legal counsel concerning the affairs of Jericho and was trying to locate news pieces about it when I ran across the town of Turrell and found an eerily similar situation. Fasten your seatbelts, kits and cats; it’s about to get strange and deja vu ain’t the half of it.

Turrell is an Arkansas town in the Mississippi delta, just off Interstate 55, a few miles up the road from Jericho and home to some 900 people. Though it’s too small to support it’s own school (it had to consolidate with the larger Marion school district), it’s problems are massive. In December, WMC-TV 5 out of Memphis, Tennessee, reported that three Arkansas towns were being investigated for the mishandling of money, including both Turrell and Jericho. This investigation was prompted by last autumn’s events in Jericho, which pointed to various corrupt and fraudlent activities being perpetrated by the mayor and police of that town.

Crittenden County, home of the three towns under investigation, put the Jericho matter in the hands of Prosecuting Attorney Lindsey Fairley, who issued warrants against Assistant Fire Chief Don Payne, the victim in the shooting. Fairley charged no one else. His inaction prompted media to alert state officials and Second District Prosecutor Mike Walden began investigating the events with the state police. Less than three weeks after the WMC-TV article was published came a new and strange twist in the story: Turrell Police Chief Greg Martin entered the home of city councilman Floyd Holmes and threatened him at gunpoint. Just to be clear, yes, that was the chief of police, sworn to protect and serve, pulling a gun on an unarmed councilman, and his wife, in the councilman’s own home. Why? Good question. The answer is long and complicated but essentially comes down to one thing: money.

Just as in Jericho, Turrell’s mayor Franklin Lockhart is accused of hiding city funds and moving them at his discretion instead of allowing the city council’s involvement. It’s not the first time Mayor Lockhart has shut out the council. In fact, in October 2008, he fired them en masse … despite lacking the authority to do so. Floyd Holmes, among those “fired” in 2008, asserted that state law gives the council control over city finances. Mayor Lockhart reportedly contended that the council had no such power but, either way, Turrell entered the new year without a budget and suffered city service interruptions due to lack of information about the town’s financial status. Councilman Holmes said Mayor Lockhart had moved Turrell funds several times, even “across state lines in[to] Tennessee.” The mayor admits he moved the funds but so far won’t say where. According to one source, the city’s budget records have not been complete since 2006. Mr. Holmes said, “We’ve been begging for someone to do something for the last two and a half years.”

On the day of the Turrell incident, Mr. Holmes and other council member Emanual Harris showed up “unannounced” to city hall – with a couple reporters in tow – to retrieve their $100 paychecks as members of the city council. While there, they also asked for the city’s financial records which, as councilmen, they are supposed to be able to access. The records were not made available to them, though no one seems able to say why, and they were denied their paychecks, purportedly because the city did not have enough funds to pay them (according to Mayor Lockhart).

Their request, coupled with the presence of reporters, “rankled” other city officials, including the mayor, and after their appearance Mayor Franklin Lockhart reportedly issued a memo to the council members specifying when and why they could appear at city hall. Lockhart then reportedly directed Police Chief Greg Martin to deliver the notices in person. When Chief Martin arrived at the home of Councilman Holmes, an argument ensued. Chief Martin followed Mr. Holmes into his house and the argument apparently culminated in the police chief drawing his weapon on both Mr. Holmes and his wife while two interior decorators looked on.

Warrants were issued for Chief Martin and he was taken into police custody, charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault. He was released later the same day on a $2500 bond. (As a side note, I wonder what my bond would be if I were charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault against a city official? I’m willing to bet $2500 wouldn’t come close.) Second District Prosecutor Mike Walden, who took up the Jericho case, also stepped in for Turrell. “It’s my understanding, it stems from this ongoing dispute that’s been running between the city council and the mayor’s office,” he told Fox 13 News of Memphis. Mayor Franklin Lockhart has had little to say except that he stands by Chief Martin and describes him as an “outstanding” officer.

An ABC news article also provided this interesting little tidbit: “This comes just two months after Mayor Lockhart asked a judge to place a lien against the members of town council in the amount of $600,000. The mayor claims council members owe the town because they haven’t performed their duties.” Which seems deliciously rich since, by all other accounts, he has prevented them in their duties at every turn.

But then, things get really strange. (Because, yeah, everything’s been right as rain to this point.) Another article reports that Turrell is not supposed to have a police department. At all. The city council has never approved or budgeted “any money for the police department but they’re still up and operating every day,” said Emanual Harris. Co-councilman Floyd Holmes agreed. The men said they have no idea how the police officers in Turrell are being paid or how the force is operating without a budget. They went on to state that Chief Martin had been fired by the council months ago. So how is he still in uniform? Martin was re-hired by Mayor Lockhart. The re-hire was subsequently overruled by the council but was never acknowledged by the mayor or police chief. Harris says, “I want to see something or somebody come in and do something; it’s not right.”

Hopefully, prosecutor Mike Walden is the man for the job.

After bonding out of police custody, and while still under investigation, Martin remains acting chief of police for Turrell. And in relation, the town of Jennette, also in Crittenden County and also under investigation, exemplifies the gross malfeasance at work in the area. It has a population of less than 150 and cannot account for $24,000 dollars in taxpayer funds.

Something, dear readers, is badly amiss.

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The media splashes violent scenes of people being beaten and a young woman dying in the street and calls it news. It’s sensationalism, but I suppose that’s what it takes to get our attention any more. If you’ve watched a news program at all in the last week or so you’ve probably seen some of it: foreign crowds with strips of green cloth tied around their wrists, wearing green shirts and masks and headbands, green paint or dye on their hands, fingers held up in an almost painfully ironic symbol of peace and victory. Of course, we know that neither peace nor victory has found either side of the conflict. And instead of green, a growing number of people are wearing red.


Photos credits, left to right, top to bottom: Getty, urbanministry.org, AP; Getty, Donald Douglas.

I don’t know what to think of the situation in Iran. I do think the election was, at best, mishandled … but it’s a messy affair. And no one in authority seems willing to recount the votes, investigate the cases of blatant fraud, or otherwise try to resolve the issue through acceptable procedural means. Instead, Iran’s “supreme leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is backing up the election results, denouncing protesters, and threatening action against anyone speaking out against the government. Equally problematic, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is digging in his heels, insisting he was re-elected fair and square, and trying to break up protest after protest with public announcements and brute force. A lot of brute force. Thankfully, serious bloodshed has been limited so far. Though I doubt that comforts the families and loved ones of the dozens who have been killed. And if the protests continue, I think it’s clear there will be a great deal more bloodshed.

The scenes filling Twitter and Flickr and Tehran Live are both inspiring and heartbreaking. And I am torn between wanting to grab a green flag to join in and just turning my back to walk away. The Idealist vs. The Pragmatist. But in a country that already hates the US, in a region that all but despises the US, I can’t help but think that getting involved would be a mistake. I hate to say that but it’s what I honestly think. A lot of people in Iran are getting mistreated (and not just since the election) but the same could be said of dozens of countries which we have also not helped. In truth, the same could be said of our own country, if not to the same extremes.

I find the violence disgusting, aimed at unarmed people doing something US citizens have (theoretically) had the right to do for well over 200 years. But a country in upheaval will always experience violence and henceforth bear that scar. It is both unfortunate and unavoidable. And who is to say the opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi would be any better? (Who is to say he is still alive, having disappeared some days ago…) Politicians the world over are notoriously dishonest, corrupt, and easily swayed by money and power. In any case, I fear US intervention would only cause more problems. Iraq has been a rather pathetic endeavor (I fully support the troops; I do not support the politicians behind the war) and Afghanistan is hardly better. With North Korea starting to test the waters across the Pacific and a US economic/financial implosion underway, I can’t think of anything less reasonable than an intervention.

For once, Barack Obama and I agree.

But I hope beyond hope that the Iranians get what they want and need and deserve as a good but mistreated people. I hope we all do.

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Well, the season of brotherly love has ended. Call me a pessimist, a cynic, a curmudgeon (all true), but a few days ago I got a call that punctured the bright balloon of Christmas delusion and ushered the real world back in. Criminals posing as lawyers, bankers, judges, and friends victimized my neighbor’s step-mom. She wasn’t the first. I watched the same thing happen roughly ten years ago to another neighbor and the similarities are sickening.

Both were older widows well past retirement; both owned their homes, a small parcel of land, and had several thousand in savings; both were “be-friended” by wealthy couples who wanted to “take care” of the women; both women signed all manner of papers they did not understand; both women died suddenly and unexpectedly with all their worldly possessions and belongings deeded to the wealthy couples who “befriended” them.

It sounds fake. A crummy sub-plot in a soap opera or B-movie. But I’ve seen it myself and know it’s real and true and still happening. The latest victim, we’ll call her Ruth for the sake of anonymity, had no blood family and only a few ties by marriage, step-children who never cared much for her. Only one even bothered to remain in contact with her (my neighbor). When she told him about the wealthy couple offering to make sure she was cared for, he was suspicious, but she was convinced they were good people and began signing the papers they put in front of her. A power of attorney in case she suddenly fell ill; access to her bank accounts and savings to make sure her bills were paid; and among the god knows what else they slid under her pen, more powers of attorney and a deed for her house and property. She signed them all. By the time she began questioning their motives, she was falling ill and had nothing left in her name.

Even so, she had the first power of attorney revoked and asked her step-son (my neighbor) for help to get them out of her life. She told him what she knew (though nothing of the secondary powers of attorney or deed, which she apparently never knew she signed) and he helped her take the couple’s names off her bank accounts that very day. The very next day, a new power of attorney was filed in the courthouse and the couple claimed her bank accounts again; it so happened that they had friends in the bank and the courthouse keeping them abreast of any changes. Before she could reverse it again, Ruth had a small stroke and went into the hospital. While there she was declared incompetent due to dementia. My neighbor admitted she had been getting worse during the last few months but did not think she was anywhere near incompetent. At any rate, she was soon sent home under the care of the wealthy couple.

My neighbor was called away on business but had his wife call every few days to check on Ruth. Ruth herself rarely answered but one of the couple often did. They assured the wife that Ruth was fine and they were taking care of her. When my neighbor returned he went to check on her and found her alone in her house, dirty, ill, and unresponsive. He called 911 and she was taken to the hospital. There, they said she was dehydrated, suffering from massive organ failure, and had not eaten in days. She died within a few days, having never truly regained consciousness. She was in the ground within 36 hours.

My neighbor is speaking with attorneys to see what his options are. They aren’t encouraging. The wealthy couple are “upstanding pillars of the community” with the man (and mastermind) a deacon in the church, an ex-judge, and a practicing attorney himself. His brother works in a major bank in the area. His years in the courthouse and law office provided him plenty of contacts but he also had fingers in real estate agencies, which came in awfully handy in tracking down new blood. It so happened a partner in one of those real estate agencies was the man behind the crimes perpetrated against my other neighbor. He’s also high in the church, has close ties with the courthouse, and has two sons in the state police.

How very, very convenient for them both.

I wish my neighbor luck but hold little hope for him. Who knows how deep their influences run, but from past dealings I can tell you they pull some strings all the way to the state capitol. And they certainly have deeper pockets and more legal experience to defend themselves than my neighbor could possibly raise to attack them. It’s just another example of our wonderful justice system and those who use it.

All I can say is, watch your back.

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