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FBI investigated Wilder only once

FBI investigated Wilder only once

Posted: Friday, October 21, 2011 8:01 pm

Associated Press
NASHVILLE (AP) — The late John Wilder only once came into the crosshairs of an FBI investigation during his record 36 years as Tennessee Senate speaker.
From his election as speaker and lieutenant governor in 1971 until he lost the post in 2007, the Mason Democrat mastered shifting political alliances and avoided a series of corruption scandals that ensnared fellow lawmakers to become the longest-serving presiding officer of a legislative chamber in modern U.S. history. He retired from the Senate in 2008.
The Associated Press obtained Wilder’s FBI file through a Freedom of Information Act request filed after he died in January 2010 at age 88.
The entire 1,047-page file is from a single 1977 investigation into whether Wilder was involved in a scheme to pay off politicians in exchange for the state issuing permits allowing Amax Coal Co. to open strip mines on the Cumberland Plateau.
It took more than a year for the government to produce the FBI documents and they are heavily redacted to obscure most names, many dates and a series of other details, ranging from a newspaper headline to the number of cigarettes one person smoked each day.
The records include no references to later FBI operations that rocked the Statehouse, like the Rocky Top bingo investigation in the late 1980s or the 2005 Tennessee Waltz sting that sent five former lawmakers to prison.
Just after the Tennessee Waltz arrests, Wilder criticized the FBI for “entrapping” the indicted legislators. A week later, he said the remarks were meant to express only his belief that “entrapment is wrong.”
Wilder emerged from the Amax investigation unscathed. Only two people were arrested in the case, and the charges were dismissed. The FBI shifted its focus to a cash-for-clemency investigation into the administration of Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton.
Wilder built a reputation for refusing to state his position on key pieces of legislation until it was a time for a vote. He developed odd speech habits, making puzzling references to what he called the “cosmos” and referring to himself in the third person.
Some observers trace Wilder’s elusive speaking style to his brush with the undercover investigation in the 1970s.
Former Sen. Edgar Gillock was a cousin to one of those charged in the Amax investigation and was close to Wilder when they served in the Senate.
“John Wilder told me that he was the target and he called the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” said Gillock, now 83. “It was to entrap him. It’s hard to entrap someone who didn’t do anything.”
Gillock, a Memphis Democrat later convicted of fraud and tax evasion in an unrelated case, said he never saw Wilder do anything illegal.
“He was the straightest man I ever knew in my life,” said Gillock, who has conducted a jail ministry since being released from prison. “He never would give other people jobs. I never understood how he got elected.”
The Wilder investigation began after Joe V.W. Gaston, then a Chattanooga attorney representing Indianapolis-based Amax Coal, alerted federal prosecutors that the company had been approached on March 1, 1977, about a proposal to push through legislation that would grant the company the necessary permits in exchange for $1.5 million and a 1 percent royalty on future coal sales.
The people making the offer allegedly claimed Wilder could confirm the deal and said he was willing to meet with company officials in Nashville and “send his private car to the airport for them,” according to an FBI memo.
Gaston said the scheme complicated the expensive and ultimately futile push to gain mining permits for 20,000 acres in Bledsoe, Sequatchie and Van Buren counties.
“We were basically operating on the up-and-up and bringing in the technical people necessary to make the case for Amax Coal Company before the regulatory bodies of the state,” said Gaston, 72, who now owns a 400-acre farm in Robertson County. “We had no knowledge of this subterfuge that was going on under the surface.”
The FBI records show Charles H. Anderson, the Republican U.S. attorney in Nashville, wasn’t convinced Wilder was involved.
“Anderson advised he would be greatly surprised if Lt. Governor John Wilder involved (in) criminal activity as Wilder is reputable person,” according to a memo from the FBI field office in Memphis dated March 11, 1977. “USA Anderson of opinion instant matter could be effort to discredit Wilder or Amax Co. by unknown persons.”
Agents in Memphis and Indianapolis nevertheless decided to investigate, and a report on a March 15 call from an undercover agent described Wilder as “very nervous and reluctant to discuss matters over (the) telephone.”
“Judging by the tone of voice, Indianapolis of the opinion that Wilder may have knowledge of the ‘deal,”’ according to the FBI memo.
A transcript of the conversation shows Wilder was asked if he had a plan for getting Amax its permits.
“Not really, no sir. I haven’t,” he said. “Let me tell you exactly where I stand. I’m a conservationist that believes in use and development, and I’m not a preservationist and I am one that believes in development of our resources being utilized.”
Wilder stressed that he considered fostering development as part of his job. “I’m available for free,” he said.
When the agent pressed for whether he would involve his real estate company, Wilder said he would not.
“I don’t want to get involved in anything where I may have a conflict,” he said. “It limits our activity a whole lot.”
Subsequent recorded conversations between FBI agents and other subjects in the case center on whether Wilder was really involved. But responses to those questions were largely coy. At one point the agent expresses frustration that “we’re talking in riddles here.”
“I’m looking for my safety,” came the answer from the person whose name is redacted in the records. “In other words, I don’t want to go to jail.”
The subject also sought to quell the undercover agent’s concern.
“I’ve never done anything that wasn’t above board in all my life,” he joked. “All Southern boys have stolen watermelons, you know.”
The transcript of another meeting with Wilder comes after then-Gov. Ray Blanton withdrew a bill seeking to take away coal mine permitting power from the Public Health Department. The FBI operative told Wilder the withdrawal was hurting the effort to mine coal in Tennessee and asked if kick-starting a lobbying effort would be enough to get a bill passed that legislative session.
Wilder suggested finding allies.
“This is the kind of thing I have done in the past,” he said. “You need Tennessee Manufacturers Association, you need Farm Bureau, you need other people to hold your hand.”
“You need somebody to take the rules and regulations which have been promoted and repeal them,” he said. “That’s direct action. Right on the subject. Drag it away from these people. … But you’ve got a short time to do it.”
Blanton later told investigators that he withdrew his bill after hearing it referred to at the Capitol as “the Amax bill” and said he didn’t want “a question raised as to whether the bill was being sponsored by the administration or for Amax,” according to the file.
Wilder appears to have recognized something was wrong with the Amax efforts after another target in the operation said he had been offered cash in a paper bag to help push through the permits under the guise of being a lobbyist. Wilder later told agents he advised the person to get a lawyer.
Next, Wilder called the agent posing as the Amax representative.
“Neither myself nor (name redacted) is associated with anybody in any way relative to any action as far as lobbying goes,” Wilder said.
On April 4, 1977, agents arrested Billy Gipson Hardin of Savannah and Jerry Ray Parks of Columbia. The next day, Wilder appeared at the U.S. Attorney’s office to give a voluntary statement.
According to an FBI summary, Wilder said he did not immediately recognize his conversations with Amax as being about something illegal, and thought that it followed from it being “generally known that he would like to see coal mined in Tennessee.”
Wilder later told reporters that his son, David, refused a $500,000 offer to become involved. Wilder also said Anderson told his attorney, “John Wilder is an honest man and is clean.”
The FBI files do not include any official vindication of Wilder. Instead, agents asked him if he would be prepared to submit to a polygraph test. Wilder said he would.
David Wilder declined to be interviewed.
“The U.S. attorney investigated the matter and completely exonerated he and his father,” said spokesman Pat Miller. “He sees no reason to revisit the matter 34 years later.”

Published in The Messenger 10.21.11


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