NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Friends in High Places
Former Sundquist Official Surrenders, Faces Corruption Charges
(Story created: 3/12/04)
A former Sundquist administration official told a federal judge she is not guilty. Joanna Ediger surrendered to U.S. marshals a day after being indicted on public corruption charges. Chief investigative reporter Phil Williams takes a look at where the case may be headed.
As Ediger emerged from the U.S. Courthouse, the former Labor Department official found herself at the center of an intense and on-going public corruption investigation...all aimed at the former Sundquist administration.
"Are you guilty?" Williams asked Ediger.
"There's no comment," her lawyer responded.
A day before, a federal grand jury found probable cause to believe that she was guilty. They charged her with:
Making false statements to investigators.
"I have never understood why people do that -- number one, usually when the FBI comes to talk with you, they know exactly what you have done," says retired FBI agent Hank Hillin.
Hillin -- who led the investigation that brought down former Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton -- calls this a classic public corruption investigation.
"It's classic in that you have to start somewhere. You have to start taking the dominoes down and pushing them over."
The investigation became public 18 months ago when FBI and TBI agents hauled away records from Workforce Strategists.
That was a Chattanooga company that was supposed to help the unemployed get back to work.
As NewsChannel 5 first discovered, the company was started by John Stamps, a longtime friend of former Governor Don Sundquist.
In 1999, the Sundquist administration gave Stamps' company an exclusive contract worth almost $2 million.
"You start with the one that's most vulnerable," Hillin says. "You start down at the bottom. But once you get the key domino, the whole thing will fall."
Prosecutors say Ediger -- a job coach by training -- helped write memos falsely claiming Workforce Strategists was the only company in Tennessee that had experience for the job.
Then, internal company documents obtained by NewsChannel 5 show, Ediger exercised an option to purchase 11 percent of the company after it landed the state contract.
"This is an indictment of a person lower in the level of things," says former federal prosecutor Gary Blackburn. "Often, the government will indict people on a lower level to secure their cooperation against other witnesses."
As NewsChannel 5 first reported, Workforce Strategists was a sister company to Comprehensive Community Care -- an outpatient mental health facility that got all its money from TennCare.
Its owners were Stamps, Sundquist's cousin Bonnie Currey and former deputy governor Alex Fischer.
"To the best of my knowledge, I have done nothing that has said to the state, 'Do this for John Stamps.'" Sundquist told Phil Williams just before he left the governor's office.
While Sundquist has denied anything wrongdoing, Hillin says there's no doubt that investigators view Ediger as the first, but not the last, domino.
"I would imagine that they are hoping they can pull the dominoes out, until the top falls."
Ediger faces up to 30 years in prison, if convicted.