Behind the Headlines — September 4, 2015

Behind the Headlines — September 4, 2015


(female announcer)
This is a production
of WKNO/Memphis. Production funding for Behind
the Headlines is made possible in part by.. – The fall of Robert Lipscomb,
questions about the Urban Child Institute and more tonight
on Behind the Headlines. [theme music] – I’m Eric Barnes, publisher of
the Memphis Daily News. Thanks for joining us. I’m joined tonight by Toby
Sells from the Memphis Flyer. Thanks for being here. – Thank you for having me. (Eric)
And Bill Dries,
senior reporter with the Memphis Daily News. And we’re doing a round table
this week talking about some of the biggest stories of the week. And Bill, the story
about Robert Lipscomb. I guess it came out
last Sunday night, Saturday night, that I got a
news alert from you and other people, other outlets. And it was just really kind of
breath taking because of the power and the scope and the
range of authority and impact that Robert Lipscomb
has had on this city, for good or bad. I’m not even judging that part. And then the
allegations were so dramatic. But tell us, for those
who somehow haven’t heard, what’s going on. – Well, these are formal
allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Robert Lipscomb who is
the citys director of housing — was the city’s director
of housing and community development until this
surfaced last Sunday. He was also the director of
the Memphis Housing Authority. Been in those positions through
two mayoral administrations. Controlled to a great degree,
actually an unprecedented degree for a city division director,
hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funding that came
in to a city that has changed public housing as we know it. Also, lead the tenure
effort to redevelop the Pyramid. Very serious, completely
unexpected allegations that really very few people
could have foreseen. However, the man who came
forward and called City Hall cold to kick all of this off had
actually complained to Memphis police five years earlier in
2010 about the same thing on the part of Lipscomb. – And I read that he maybe
had approached Myron Lowery, city councilman. I think I read
that this morning. And that Myron
Lowery was saying, you know, he approached me at
a gas station and I said you should call the
police about that. So, there’s some vagaries about
he came forward but he didn’t necessarily leave his name. I mean, a lot to be determined
in terms of what all of that. And we should say,
again and again, these are allegations. They’re not proven. But, I mean, Toby,
you’ve covered City hall. You’ve covered business in
Memphis for a long time. It’s just amazing. I mean, because Robert Lipscomb,
even if people don’t know him, he’s an unelected official. He’s a power broker
behind the scenes. Bill talked about it. It’s remarkable the impact
the guy has had on the city. – If you wanted to do anything
big in the city of Memphis, you go to Robert
Lipscomb’s office for a visit. That was his impact here. As Bill said, directed
hundreds of millions of dollars. Got the Bass Pro deal done,
which was more than a hundred million dollar
deal for the city. And extremely powerful
yet behind the scenes. But huge in his impact. The loss is going to be
felt for a long time. – There are.. Is it ten big public housing
projects that were in Memphis? Nine of them have
been transformed? I don’t know if I
got that number right. And the one that’s
pending, which is South City, it’s kind of the Vance Avenue. Would that be east of
the South Main District, which is we’re on the short
list of choice neighborhoods. Do we know? I mean, do you
want to take this? I mean, is there any.. What’s the impact on
some of the projects, particularly that,
which is a really big one. Could it be impacted
by these allegations? – As far as I know, the city’s
application to the federal government for the funds
has already been executed. We’re waiting to hear word back. That project, of course, would
transform Foote Homes in to these other mixed use or
mixed income properties like the others. So, I don’t think his absence
is going to impact that a whole lot. Maybe, Bill, you
can correct me there. – But there’s an audit. I guess that’s where.. I may be talking
about two things at once. But there’s going to be an audit
of everything because there were payments. That I think is
clear at this point. There were payments from
Robert Lipscomb to someone to.. He was blackmailed
to keep him quiet. We don’t know but I
think for that reason alone, the city has said we’re going to
audit everything he was involved with. – And there’s also
a routine aspect, too, that any time a division
director with control over this much money leaves office
for whatever the reason is, there’s going to
be an audit of it. And the Feds are probably going
to have some questions because of the allegations that
some pay-offs were made. They’re going to want some
assurances that either that didn’t happen or
that if it did happen, that these were not Federal
funds that they sent to the city. – Right. And one of the other ones
you may have touched on, Toby, is the fairgrounds. I mean, Robert has been deeply
involved in that pre-recession. Everything sort of went
in hibernation through the recession. Any sense of what
happens with the fairgrounds? – I think now
everybody is taking a pause. I’ve heard from members of the
Coliseum Coalition and they said we’re taking a wait
and see approach. We don’t know yet
what’s going to happen. And this was even after Lipscomb
had kind of backed off the aggressive plan to go for
the youth sports complex idea, taken a bit of a
breather in that. And now, I think that’s
probably on the shelf, the whole idea is on
the shelf for a minute. – They’ve named interim people. – Yes. Maura Black Sullivan, who is
the deputy chief administrative officer for the city, is the new
director of the Memphis Housing Authority. And she will take a leave
from the deputy CAO’s position. – But she’s been very involved
in planning and these sorts of projects, right? Am I right? – Yes, she has a lot of
experience with planning both with the Shelby County Schools
system and in other roles, as well. – And then the other job that he
had because we’ll get in to this in a second. Robert Lipscomb
carried two titles, two jobs and two salaries. The other will be taken
over on an interim basis by.. – Right, the Housing and
Community Development position is being taken by one
of his deputy directors. (Eric Barnes)
Debbie Singleton. And that was always a criticism
from some people that Robert Lipscomb was paid some
with the two salaries, $250,000 a year. A lot of money for
a public figure. And he carried two job
titles and the secrecy. I mean, thoughts on that now. And we should say
one of the jobs, he’s going to
continue to be paid. He’s on paid leave. – MHA Chairman Ian Randolph
yesterday said that they are conducting their own
internal look at Lipscomb. They’re going to come back in
another meeting on the 16th to determine disciplinary
action against Lipscomb. But you’re absolutely
right as far as the money. And I think the secrecy
surrounding his office, I think now that the light is
going to shine in to both of those jobs. And I don’t think that we’ve
heard the last of these stories. – There have always been
questions about whether one person should have
this much control. And the argument on the other
side has been that because one person has had this control,
these things have gotten done in some cases on an
expedited basis. In others, it’s taken a long
time as in ten years with the Pyramid. – And there are people
who we’ve had on the show, Ken Reardon, who have
organized against some of these transformations to
public housing projects. But what Memphis has done
with its public housing is not unprecedented. But it’s pretty remarkable
to people I’ve talked to. And we’ve talked about it
on the show over the years. People just haven’t transformed
public housing the way that Robert did. And he did it with a hammer. He did it with, you know, he
just forced these things to happen. And then you look at the
Bass Pro Pyramid deal, I mean, how many adaptive reuses
of major civic arenas have there been in the country? – That are not churches. – I mean, its pretty.. Again, I mean, so back to this
thing of did all that power and all that secrecy and the ability
to work as an unelected official sort of affect it. But I think I can’t imagine
that this isn’t the end of it. There’s not going to be a new
person comes in with the same sort of authority and
freedom to get things done. – Lipscomb did the
job for 20 plus years. He had been there
a long, long time. Made in roads on both jobs and
did things effectively his own way. But got things done. Yet again, as a reporter, it was
pretty tough to kind of chisel in and see what was going
on inside those two jobs. – And I didn’t mean to imply
that Maura or Debbie won’t be effective. I just think the way he operated
is probably not going to be that kind of secrecy is not
going to be repeated. And that doesn’t mean they
can’t be very effective. – And when Wharton
took office in late 2009, there was a debate within the
administration about does this arrangement with
Robert Lipscomb continue. And ultimately, the
administration decided that it would because of what he
had been able to accomplish. – Again, when I
say, as I keep saying, these are
allegations at this point. There’s a lot that’s unknown. Because they are allegations,
we’re not going to focus on all of them because there’s
just so much money in this. But we will talk about the
politics and the implication of this is election season, Bill. Robert Lipscomb is a
controversial figure anyway for the reasons we’ve talked about. What are the
political implications? Because I’ve heard people on
both ends of the spectrum. This is a terrible thing for
Wharton to have happen right now to.. Actually, this is kind of a good
thing because people didn’t like Lipscomb. Again, in kind of
cold political terms, what’s your take? – In cold political terms, I
think the scandal is still moving. So, it’s really hard to tell. I don’t think there’s any doubt
that Mayor Wharton takes a hit in what was already a
tight re-election battle. – Because maybe these
allegations weren’t acted on fast enough or what
would the hit be? Just the tarnish? – I think the hit is what
happened after the initial aftermath. The report that the first
accuser of Robert Lipscomb had gone to the police
five years earlier. And there are a lot of questions
about the city’s response. The police tried to find him. That much is clear
from the e-mail memos. But they couldn’t. This young man was
homeless at the time. But when he called
city hall in late August, just about a week ago, he
got all the way to the Mayor. And the Mayor,
after talking with him, then sent the police director,
the city’s police director and several investigators to the
Seattle area to talk with him in person. – I mean, that was one of
the things that struck me, Toby. I mean, you and I
haven’t talked about this. But from.. Sometimes people crticize
Wharton for being too slow moving. He wants everyone to get along. He wants to do a committee. I mean, that’s one of the
criticisms Wharton gets. This is more Wharton is lawyer. I mean, he acted incredibly
quickly it seems as far as what we know at this point. – Sure. And that phone call, Bill
said, went straight to the top somehow. You know, it got buried back
in 2010 somehow back then. And this time, it got
straight to the Mayor’s office. And I think his lawyer instincts
did kick in and knew that he needed to act sizably and
act quickly and really cover himself. And got it taken
care of very quickly. Had a phone call a week later. Like you said, Toney,
Director Armstrong, and some investigators are
on their way to Seattle, came back Sunday. You know, the news release
went out from the Mayor’s office late, like 11:00 Sunday night. By Monday, he had resigned. It was really quick. – And a lot of things,
again, cold political terms, things that people criticized
Wharton for not being, really did take place here. And I should say,
too, that Jack Sammons, the chief administrative
officer for the city, I think what they’ve said is
that the call that came in 2010 from this person, he
didn’t leave his name. He didn’t leave a number. I actually sounds kind of
callous but Jack Sammons has said there isn’t a White Pages
where you can look up somebody’s phone number who’s homeless. There is no White Pages for
homeless people to paraphrase it. So, they’re a
little on the defensive, I think, which
gets to your point. But so far, you know, they just
say they couldn’t find a way to track him down. – Well, and I think the response
in the first three days of this have been very
interesting as well. Ricky Wilkins, who is the
attorney for Robert Lipscomb, has been very critical of the
leaks of information about this investigation in
those first three days. But I think that the people
around the Mayor felt like something had to be said. And we had to have some details
released of this because they’ve looked at what’s happened with
Darrius Stewart police shooting where we haven’t
had any details. And it’s been over a
month since that happened. I think in this case, there were
people within the administration who said we’ve got to get some
information out there on this. – You want to wrap up
this election thing here? But any other
thoughts from your seat? I know you don’t cover
the elections directly. But just, you’ve been in city
hall politics covering all this stuff. I mean, is it the
impact for Strickland, for Collins, for Mike Williams,
for the other candidates, kind of top candidates? – I think it’s going to be a
tricky one for them to either put away or to, you know, kind
of make any kind of political cash on because, I mean,
it is such a sticky thing. And the scandal is still moving. People don’t know how to
respond to it just yet. So, we’ll see how it’s
going to affect October. – And I should say when we wrap
this up that we are having a live debate forum with those
candidates I just mentioned — Wharton, Mike
Williams, Jim Strickland, Harold Collins —
on September 17th. I think the last debate
before early voting begins. But more on that
as time goes by. Let’s segue out of
elections to a story you did. It’s the cover story from the
Memphis Flyer on the Urban Child Institute. And raising some questions
about the organization. Tell us what the story is
and tell us what some of those questions and concerns are. – The story
focused on, of course, the Urban Child Institute. And for years and years,
people in the non-profit world, critics have said that they sit
on this huge investment fund, which as of last year
was around $148 million. And they could spend that money
to actually help children in the community. Instead, they sit on it. They watch it grow. And they spend very little of
it on things directly in the community. All of this while
they pay their CEO, Gene Cashman, what some consider
to be an exurbanite amount of money. It was about $633,000 in 2013. And critics say
that’s way too much. National and local comparisons
kind of bear that out. – On the salary
thing, Memphis Magazine, John Branston, your colleague
over at the magazine side, had, you know, from
Assisi, from Plough, from Hyde Foundation,
Poplar — some of the big ones. The salaries tend to
be in the $300,000 250 to 325 range. So, this Urban Child Institute
salary is certainly double that. But part of it is, I
mean, there’s the salary. But no one’s saying there’s
any malfeasance going on. I’ll definitely clarify that
because we just come off a thing of allegations and so on. But the giving, the percentage
of how much money goes out the door. So Urban Child, for people
who aren’t familiar with it, they probably read about it. I mean, we rely on their very
informative stuff on early brain development. We’ve had people, doctors and
scientists from the Urban Child Institute on the show. We had them on the show, Bill,
when we were doing shows on the pre-k vote. And, you know, it was kind of a
compelling to have this doctor who knew, you know. The politicians sit here, as
they often do on our show, and debate whether we can
fund it and debate whether it’s effective. And then we have this
scientist who could say, “Oh no, it’s effective.” You know, we can point
to all the research. So, I don’t think anyone doubts
that the research they do and that they put out there is
tremendously valuable and makes this case for early
intervention and what it takes. Again, I’m stepping on you. But the point is, the criticism
from some corners is that, okay, you’ve teed up
what the problem is. You’re sitting on $150 million
and you’re only giving out, these days in the last years,
maybe two millions dollars. – That’s right. And the organizations
that they give the money to, they’re big supporters of UT
Health Science Center for some of their research, University
of Memphis for some of their research. And they also look at
early child development. But they also give to folks like
Victorian Village and the New Memphis Institute. And Gene Cashman, the CEO, told
me that investments there help get their message out, you
know, to people at large. But critics say you’ve
done this study for many, many years. You come out with that
data book every year. And we’re spinning our
wheels on this research. We know it’s a problem. You’ve defined the problem. Let’s use your money that you
have to go after these problems. – And let me go through,
again from Memphis Magazine, some of the big
foundations giving out.. I can’t quite see here. But in recent years,
Assisi gave out ten million. The Hyde Foundation gave out ten
and then another eight million. The Plough Foundation, 12
million dollars in grants. Poplar Foundation, 12 million. Pyramid Peak, 30 million. Urban Child
Institute, as I said before, two million. And all of them have.. I mean, so the percentage. Again, giving to
what the assets are, giving to what the
purpose is, is where people.. Andy Cates is
quoted in your story. I should disclose Andy
is a friend of mine. But, you know, the Cates family,
his brother Staley who runs which of the foundations? – Poplar Foundation. – Tremendous
philanthropists, whatever, you know. Andy went on the record. A lot of people didn’t
want to go on the record. Right? Because it’s a touchy subject. – Absolutely. I will say Urban Child,
they, Gene Cashman told me, and of course I saw
the tax documents, they are set up differently than
a lot of these foundations out there. They don’t have a percentage
that they have to give away. You know, federally mandated I
think is five percent that some folks like Assisi and Plough,
they have to give the money out. And Gene Cashman told
me we don’t have to. There’s not a percentage for us. We can do what we
want with our money. – And again, which gets
back to no one here.. No one here is saying
there’s any kind of malfeasance. The board votes on
the compensation. The board sets the investments. I mean, it’s all
managed, you know, legally and so on. But again, the questions from
the philanthropic community who would like to see more. I don’t want to pick on Andy
but Andy went on the record. And I’ve had people come to me
afterward off the record and say yeah, it’s a problem. And people in the philanthropic
community say we’d like them to be giving money
out and they’re not. – And we also are in an era
where more and more people are questioning results as opposed
to what’s in the annual report. You know, beyond the figures,
there’s a thing of so many of the problems that these groups
work with are deeply entrenched problems that are actually a
part of the city’s history, if not a part of
the city’s culture. So, we’re beginning to see
a lot of push back from.. We know there’s a problem. We know it’s, you know, you
can give me the exact numbers. But we’re aware it is. The issue is what are we doing
about it and is what we’re doing effective. – Well, you see
that in the schools. There’s the debate about too
much testing in the schools and all that. But at the same time, it
is interesting to watch the outcomes of iZone schools. Because we have those people on. And the ASD schools
and the charter schools. And there’s this
kind of real focus. And a lot of the groups I
just mentioned are very heavily involved in the charter schools. And, you know, funding that
and wanting to see outcome based results as you were saying. – But again, I
want to, you know, reiterate — no one is talking
about malfeasance because we were talking about allegations. We were talking about other
things and I don’t want to get that muddied up. It is just an
interesting debate, an interesting question that
you all were able to raise. And again, combined with the
stuff that’s in the Memphis Magazine. I encourage people to read
it and agree or disagree, you know. I think that was good. Um, let’s move to
Shelby County Schools, Bill. Has filed a law suit. I just mentioned the schools. This was being explored by
the board and pushed by certain board members. Chris Caldwell I
think once notably. Dorsey Hopson, the former
general council for Shelby County Schools,
now superintendent, was a little wary. But they’re going ahead with
the lawsuit against the state. What is that lawsuit about? – The lawsuit is
about a statewide issue. And that is state funding
for what is called the Basic Education Program, or the BEP
for short because in government, you have to have a lot of
letter that stand for things. Otherwise, it’s not government. [laughter] (Eric)
Bill’s not cynical. – No, not at all. The BEP is basically the formula
that determines how the state distributes its funding to
this local school system, to this one and
this one over here, regardless of
whether they’re rural, urban actually makes
distinctions for that. So, the state has not been
fully funding the formula ever. And there’s been a lot of talk
about the state should be forced to at least
increase the funding. So, Shelby County Schools has
filed the lawsuit in Chancery Court in Davidson County. But they have not joined the
other lawsuits filed by a group of school systems in the
Eastern part of the state. Chattanooga and the school
systems in the surrounding county there. They have instead filed their
own lawsuit and that was because they feel like the issues that
are going to be explored in that lawsuit with Shelby County
Schools and its share of state funding are unique to
our situation here. – And the way that Shelby
County Schools calculates, it’s $100 million in additional
funding from the state, which is huge. We’re not talking about
a small amount of money. I mean, the other thing.. I don’t get this. And I don’t know if
you can answer it. I was talking to
somebody else about it. The state acknowledges that
they’re not fully funding it. Does the law say that they
are required to fully fund it? Or does the law say, well,
that’d be nice if you’d fully fund it. – Well, that’s what the
lawsuit is going to be about. Because the school system quotes
a passage from the Tennessee Constitution that it says does
require the state to fully fund under this formula or
whatever formula is in place. And it’s a critical issue
because state funding including federal funding that is passed
through at the local school systems by the
state is the bulk, the largest single amount
of funding that local school systems across the state get. So, it’s a crucial
amount of money. But the lawsuit is going to
be about what that part of the state constitution means. The state, I would predict,
is going to argue that that phrasing in the state
constitution is very general and very vague. – I don’t know. Your thoughts on this? I don’t know how much
you’re tracking this stuff. But we’ve had, you know.. We’ve had, you know, we’ve had
Chris Barbic from the ASD on. And he was kind
of funny about it. He goes, well, yeah, I
think that’d be good for us. But he works for the state. And it wouldn’t just, I
think, if they ruled in favor of Chattanooga or in
favor of Memphis, I think it would
impact all the states. So, it would be hundreds
of millions of dollars in additional money,
state and federal money, that would go to the schools. Haslam has said, look,
we’d love to fund BEP fully. We just don’t have the money. Critics have said, well,
you’re going to have the money. If you lose this
lawsuit, you’ll find the money. I mean, somehow there
is the money out there. I mean, not to be flippant about
taxes but you can tax or you can cut and stop spending
money on something else. – Well, and I think at the
root of this lawsuit is the legislature and its willingness
to increase the funding to the BEP even if the
Governor were to propose that. – Bill, you know that everyone
who comes on this show says they want to fund schools more. Everyone says that. – Everyone is for education. (Eric)
Don’t they always say that? Everyone is in favor of
funding more for schools. – Everyone is for education
and everyone is against crime. But when you start talking about
the dollar amount and what the dollars are going to go
for, then you have a debate. – Yeah. Let us segue in to.. Joking a little bit here but
segue in to a serious thing going on in the
Germantown Schools. CFO there was
fired by Jason Manuel, by the superintendent or was
fired by the schools system. Is accusing the
superintendent, Jason Manuel, of fudging some numbers? I mean, you want to take this? – Yeah. These are.. (Eric)
These are allegations. – These were the critical
discussions that the Germantown school board and its
superintendent had going in to the start of the
suburban school districts. And it was specifically
about shared services that the cafeteria and other back office
functions of all the school systems that they decided to do
on a common basis to pull their resources and
pursue it that way. Well, the Germantown school
board had a pretty good debate about whether they should do
that or whether they should not, and the CFO for the
Germantown School System is alleging that some numbers were
fudged to make it look like the school system should go ahead
and do the shared services, which some of the board members
did not want to do initially. I was there for some
of the discussions, not all of the discussions. And what I remember is that
Jason Manuel told his school board that basically this is
an all or nothing agreement. You can’t pick shared
services, one or two of them, but then not go for the others
with the other school districts. – There’s more to this. Jane Roberts from
the Commercial Appeal, I’ve got her story here,
did a great job with it. People should look at that. Thank you, Bill,
for the summary. Thanks for being here. Toby, thanks for being here. Enjoyed it. Thank you for joining us. Join us again next week. [theme music] CLOSED CAPTIONING
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