NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Capitol Hill Corruption
Tennessee Waltz Tapes Hint at Other Lawmakers
(Story created: 2/20/06)
Operation Tennessee Waltz now has its first conviction: a Hamilton County commissioner. But tapes played during that trial hint at the ammunition that the feds may have against other state lawmakers.
If last spring's roundup of state lawmakers was a political earthquake, then this past weekend's conviction of Hamilton County Commissioner William Cotton was certainly an aftershock.
The trial revealed that the FBI had not only wired storefront offices with hidden cameras.
They also tapped phones of people at the center of the public corruption sting.
"It means that most of the illegal activity, if it exists, probably is on tape," former federal prosecutor Gary Blackburn tells NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.
Among the more revealing bits of evidence: an audio tape made at meeting in the lobby of Miami's elegant Palms Hotel in December 2004.
On the tape: an agent posing as a representative of E-Cycle Management -- the FBI's front company -- and Charles Love.
Love has now admitted being a so-called "bag man" who funneled bribes to public officials.
"The first impression is that the FBI agent is very well schooled," Blackburn says.
On the tape, the undercover agent cautions Love that he shouldn't be offering money to lawmakers who want to sponsor E-Cycle's legislation.
"Somebody may decide they want to do that because they want some help," the agent says.
"If that's the case, I've got no problem -- as long as they bring it up. Don't you bring it up, OK?"
Blackburn explains, "You want the defendant to first have mentioned the illegal act. That helps you to overcome an entrapment defense."
The tape provides few clues about those lawmakers who've already been indicted.
But the agent offers tantalizing clues about the thousand bucks that state Sen. Jeff Miller, R-Cleveland, has admitted accepting from Love.
"Jeff has already indicated he wants some support," the undercover agent tells Love.
"I hate to sound like a mercenary, but if the guy wants support, we're willing to do it. He's willing to be discreet about it."
It's money that Miller has insisted was nothing more than a campaign contribution.
"I put it with all my other campaign contributions," Miller told Phil Williams last year.
"Would you provide proof that you did that?" Williams asked.
"My word should be enough for you, Phil."
The question: If Miller asked for something in exchange for sponsoring legislation, even if it's a campaign contribution, is that illegal?
"It's a bribe," Blackburn answers.
Prosecutors recently summoned former Miller aides before a federal grand jury, but the East Tennessee Republican refused to say whether he thinks he could be next to be indicted.
But the tapes -- and the talk of money going to Miller -- may speak volumes.
"Just be sure when you talk to Jeff," the agent tells Love, "be sure he understands, you know, it's not from us.
"It is, but it isn't," the agent laughs. "All right?"
Miller has insisted that he has done nothing wrong -- and the feds aren't saying if he faces indictment.
But the bagman, Charles Love, has pleaded guilty and is now cooperating with investigators.
Still, Miller isn't the only name mentioned on the tapes.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Lois Deberry has admitted taking $200 cash from another undercover operative on a gambling trip to Tunica.
But she told the House Ethics Committee that they never talked about legislation.
"I did not meet with this individual on legislation, did not speak to this person about legislation," she told her colleagues, thwarting Republican efforts to open an ethics investigation of her actions.
But, on the tape, the FBI agent tells Love:
"My understanding [is that] Lois has also agreed to co-sponsor."
In the end, Deberry did not sponsor the bill.
As to who talked about what, Blackburn says he has little doubt that the conversation probably is on a tape somewhere in the FBI's files.
"The fact that she got money at one particular time just by itself won't prove the case," Blackburn says. "You have to have a context within which that money was received."