Friday, October 07, 2005

Frist Narrowly Escapes Certain Scandal

I bought a copy of today's Commercial Appeal to read while eating lunch. (At Pho Hoa Binh on Madison, by the way, after reading EJ's frequent raves about the place. It's very good, although being served a can of Coke and glass of ice seems kinda tacky. I was well into one dish before discovering it was tofu! And the curried potato soup is great on chill days. Thanks for the rec Eric!)

Anyway, my eyes nearly fell out of their sockets when they tripped over one news giblet. Since I don't think it's in the online version (Who can tell? The online and print editions are arranged differently. Happy searching.), I'll transcribe it:
Former Commercial Appeal political columnist Susan Adler Thorp went back and forth with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's office, and met with Frist in Memphis, before deciding not to take a job as his press secretary.

"We talked numerous times by phone and email and I seriously considered it," Thorp, 56, siad. "Over the years, I've developed a great deal of respect and admiration for Senator Frist, but I unfortunately couldn't accept the position."

Frist's chief of staff, Andrea Becker, said through a deputy press secretary Thursday that the new press secretary will be announced next week. She also said the office does not comment on the selection process.
Bloody fucking hell. It sounds like Thorp was approached by Frist's office and she turned them down. The bit was likely written by Bartholomew Sullivan, the CA's Washington bureau dude, and a long time colleague of Thorp's. Neither is known for fidelity to facts nor descriptions resembling the described, so how much of this is accurate is up for grabs. Still, I am dumb-founded. Admittedly, the piece was very short, but what it didn't mention is the real story.

Thorp is a walking, talking scandal. Widely criticised during her tenure at the paper for being a Democratic shill and partisan, while cloaking herself in the above-it-all robe of "longtime political observer," Thorp often used her column for various vendettas and personal agendas. Her final, and to me most infamous, vendetta was in the month surrounding the 2002 Shelby County elections.

Thorp wrote ten columns during those four weeks. Five specifically and vociferously attacked the Republican candidate for Shelby County Mayor, George Flinn, on a variety of fronts, including a laugable but enraging charge that his campaign manager was rude to her at a local grocery store. She never wrote a column about the other, Democratic, candidate (victor AC Wharton), but did laud Wharton in columns attacking Flinn. She ended her run with the famous "exit interview," wherein she interviewed Flinn as though he was being shown the door in his political aspirations.

She also wrote one column where, after a career spent denigrating people involving themselves in politics who have no background, no experience, no understanding of the issues and no platform (witness her attacks on Flinn), she found the two "no hope" unknowns running as Democrats against the prohibitive Republican front-runners. (One was eventual winner Marsha Blackburn, whom Thorp had already been attacking.) Thorp had never written about these kinds of stealth candidates before, except in the usual CA modes of genteel derision or passing note. Neither Democrat had the slightest idea what was going on; both were immaculate embodiments of everything Thorp had long despised. And yet she treated them with respect and seriousness. It was a transparent effort to give some boost to Democratic chances.

Mere weeks after this, Thorp abrupty quit the CA to take a new job: communications director with new Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton! Despite a long career as a newswoman, demanding people answer her questions under pain of her making up answers for them, she brushed aside any hints of quid pro quo or cronyism by clamming up.

And then came Tom Jones. Jones was a long-time "executive administrator" for several Mayors of both parties. He was the go-to guy for getting things done. Jones was caught in a scandal involving several members of the out-going Rout administration who were carrying over into the Wharton administration (and crossing party lines) misusing and abusing their County-issued credit cards for questionable expenses. Mayor Rout had known about the upcoming scandal since April of that year, before the elections. Jones was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison.

Even though others were involved, apparently including Rout himself, Jones became the fall guy. He fought imprisonment, even threatening to "name names" just before he went to prison in a bid for some intervention. Of course, he only served half his term before going to a half-way house designed to teach inmates how to adapt to the crime-free, regular world. Given that Jones, near sixty, had been employed gainfully all his life and was well integrated into the regular world, his presence in a half-way program seems like another bit of cronyism.

Jones then approached Thorp and another "fixer" in County government, "executive administrator" Bobby Lanier about having his pension doubled. Although it wasn't widely reported, apparently Jones wife was ill and had mounting medical bills. Jones sought more pension and a better medical benefit. Rather than go through the County Retirement Board, and risk exposure and media glare, he privately got Thorp and Lanier to intercede on his behalf. They arranged for him to be put back on the County payroll for a holiday weekend, which under arcane pension rules gave him the necessary qualifications for an upward adjustment of his pension. He never did any actual work.

When caught, both claimed that Mayor Wharton was in the loop, but Wharton was adamant otherwise and demanded both resign, which they did. Again, Thorp refused to answer questions, except to proclaim her own innocence. She faded away. Jones, by the way, eventually did get his pension increase through a rather suspicious vote by the Retirement Board. Lucky him. He also works for the Coletta Group downtown, advising and schmoozing with the very people he once worked amongst even though he is now a felon. And some people wonder why so many are distrustful of government....

Thorp then returned to the spotlight when WMC, Channel Five, hired her as their on-air editorialist, and off-air as their "door opener;" helping reporters with access in difficult stories. As I understand it, a personal friendship with WMC News Director Peggy Phillip played a part in her consideration for that position. Thorp went many months not appearing on air, until the day of the Tennessee Waltz arrests. WMC went wall-to-wall in their coverage and brought Thorp to the anchor desk throughout for commentary.

My jaw hit the ground that day. A disgraced and resigned former member of the Wharton administration, tagged with allegations of unethical if not illegal behavior, sitting next to Joe Birch and Kym Clark (I think it was), talking about damage to the integrity of government and abuse of office with a straight face. I was watching intently, to see how she handled her own tainted past, but I never saw a word mentioned. News Director Phillip maintains she did, briefly, address it.

Thorp rarely appears on air, which is good. I missed her most recent appearance, but it seems to have sparked yet more controversy.

So why in God's name is Frist, a Republican, even considering hiring a Democrat, let alone one with Thorp's baggage? Did he actually approach her? Did she decline? Or was her name bruited about and did they drop her upon learning about her history?

For the life of me, I cannot fathom this. Thank goodness Frist is a no-hoper in the '08 Presidential elections. And that he's leaving office next year. You have to wonder at this kind of judgment.

FRIDAY NIGHT UPDATE:Oops! I didn't go back through that transcription, and so you saw how badly I type "blind." It's fixed now. Thank you to Mark who phoned me to give me the bad news. Sorry about today's quality control, but that's what y'all get when it's a one man operation.

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