Sunday, November 06, 2005

Hyneman a 'friend' indeed to officials

All say gifts, favors have no bearing on development votes

Commercial Appeal
By Marc Perrusquia and Michael Erskine
Link to original

He bought an airline ticket for County Commissioner Michael Hooks and helped City Council Chairman Edmund Ford lease a new $50,000 Cadillac.

When council member Barbara Swearengen Holt wanted to see a preseason Grizzlies game this fall, he helped her sit for free in a luxury skybox.

Multimillionaire developer Rusty Hyneman has provided these and other perks to local politicians while on a remarkable run winning approval for his often controversial land developments.

An investigation by The Commercial Appeal found:

Last year, Hyneman co-signed to lease a Cadillac sport utility vehicle worth more than $50,000 for Ford, who had bad credit and couldn't qualify for the car. Ford says he makes the monthly payments himself.

Hyneman paid $1,200 in April to get Hooks a plane ticket to New York, where the commissioner scouted out college opportunities for his teenage son.

Hyneman's business partner provided Hooks an interest-free $16,000 loan in 1999.
The favors, turned up in the newspaper's six-week investigation, only add to a lengthy list already public.

When he was county mayor, Jim Rout accepted a free trip on Hyneman's private jet. City Councilman Rickey Peete turned to Hyneman for help in buying a new house. Home builder-turned-commissioner Tom Moss rented a home from Hyneman when he needed to establish residency in a new district.

In addition, Hyneman, his family members and business associates have raised tens of thousands of dollars for council members and commissioners in campaign contributions since the 1990s.

Almost invariably, when politicians were asked about Hyneman, they described him as a friend, saying any favors he may have performed had no impact on their official actions.

"You don't think he's just a nice guy?" said Holt, 66, who says she is so close to the 41-year-old developer she calls him "my son."

In a council meeting in September, Holt, Ford and Peete fawned over Hyneman's fifth-grade daughter, who had won a championship riding one of her father's horses, presenting her with cuff links, a blouse, a medallion -- and the symbolic key to the city.

"It's outrageous (what) he can do," said attorney Dan Norwood, an advocate for ethics reform who also once led an unsuccessful fight to block a controversial Hyneman building project in Cordova.

"The local ethics law has absolutely no teeth in it."

Despite a statewide push for ethics reform following corruption indictments against at least 10 current and former public officials, the Memphis City Council still has few hard rules on accepting gifts, maintaining a code of ethics that is not mandatory but simply advisory.

"The next ethics battle needs to be right here," Norwood said.

Hyneman, who served a term in federal prison after a drug conviction in 1988, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Ford's Cadillac

When Edmund Ford drives to City Hall to chair the council's biweekly meetings, he shows up in a sporty 2004 Cadillac SRX.

Ford got the black sport utility vehicle -- worth more than $50,000 and loaded with custom features -- last year from Bud Davis Cadillac, signing a $918 monthly lease.

Ford, 50, a funeral director by trade, filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in 1999. His credit was bad, and, he admits, he couldn't qualify by himself.

Records show Hyneman co-signed on the four-year lease.

The car is registered to the E.H. Ford Mortuary, but the title application was signed by Hyneman. Ford said he gets no help from Hyneman making the monthly lease payments.

"I don't need nobody to pay nothing for me. No. No, no, no, no. No sir," Ford said. "He's a friend of mine. ... I mean, he's just co-signing. I mean, what was the problem?"

Asked if Hyneman's co-signing equated to a gift with economic value, Ford said, "Well, I guess it would. ...

"You get people to co-sign with you on a lot of different things. If I didn't pay the note, they'd end up taking the vehicle, or whoever co-signed would be responsible, I guess. But other than that, no."

Former County Commissioner Joe Cooper, the car salesman who handled the Ford deal and who remains a close associate of Hyneman's, said he doubts the developer is paying for the car.

"I'm sure he isn't," Cooper said, but citing customer confidentiality, seemed to reconsider.

"Once the car leaves here, I don't know who pays for them."

Council minutes show that in the months after Ford's March 2004 acquisition of the Cadillac, he voted for two major developments involving Hyneman.

That May, the council unanimously approved Saint Andrew's Place, a 105-lot residential planned development near Houston Levee and Macon roads pitched by Hyneman's Rusco development firm.

In February, the council unanimously approved Fountain Brook, a 335-home development on 106 acres in Cordova. Office of Planning and Development records list Rusco Partnership as the applicant and equitable owner.

Ford said there was no connection between the car and any of his votes: "Nobody influences my vote. I'm going to vote what I think is right. You know, that's on anybody."

NYC bound

Last spring, when Hooks chaired the County Commission, the other major governing board that approves local developments in Memphis and Shelby County, Hyneman bought him an airline ticket.

Hyneman charged the ticket on his American Express card, records show.

Hyneman's account statement shows a $1,249 charge on April 22 to AirTran Airways for a round-trip ticket to New York.

The entry says simply, "Date of Departure: 4/23. Passenger Name: Hooks/Michael."

Asked about the charge, the commissioner's son, school board member Michael Hooks Jr., made it clear the charge wasn't made for him.

"Let me emphatically say that I did not go on a trip to New York," he told a reporter.

But his father did.

The departure date, April 23, was a Saturday, and records show Hooks was absent for the commission's meeting that Monday, April 25.

Tom Moss, who had to chair the meeting in Hooks's absence, recalled that Hooks was on a college trip with his youngest son, which included a visit to New York University and other northeastern schools.

"He had several scholarship offers, and I think it was posed as it had to do something with that," Moss said.

"... They started in New York and they might even have gone up to Connecticut from there. That is my best guess."

Hooks did not respond last week to requests for comment on the tickets, but told a reporter earlier this fall that a $16,000 loan he took in 1999 from Hyneman's business partner had no impact on his voting.

"It's my personal business. It's got nothing to do with government," he said in September.

Records show Hooks has voted for several Hyneman projects through the years, including a 2001 addition to the sprawling Cordova Ridge planned development.

More perks

Holt said she sat with Hyneman last month in a skybox at a Grizzlies preseason basketball game. Hyneman often sits there, yet Holt said she can't recall who owns the skybox or which game it involved.

"I enjoyed it," she said.

Holt told The Commercial Appeal last year that Hyneman had given her Grizzlies club seat tickets worth $140 a pop more than once during the 2003-04 season, but says she now has season tickets that she paid for herself.

"He is a friend," said Holt, who has often supported Hyneman projects, but said the tickets have no impact on her votes. "My integrity means more to me than a Grizzlies ticket."

Councilman Peete, who met Hyneman in prison while serving a term for extortion and who got help from the developer in 1997 in buying a $110,000 home, said he, too, considers Hyneman a friend.

"You can be friends with an individual and at the same time maintain an objective perspective, if in fact there's something they've got that has to come before the body," Peete said.

"And that's the way I try to approach everything."

-- Marc Perrusquia: 529-2545

- Michael Erskine: 529-5857

Reporter Ruma Banerji Kumar contributed to this story.

Copyright 2005, - Memphis, TN. All Rights Reserved.

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