On April 16, WTVF-Channel 5 reporter Larry Brinton started making trouble for the office of Davidson County Clerk Bill Covington.
Brinton, the slow-drawling veteran reporter who breaks more courthouse-based stories of corruption, intrigue, and back-stabbing than both of the city’s daily newspapers combined, told viewers that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was investigating Covington for possible misuse of his office for political and personal gain.
Covington, who in recent years has emerged as one of Nashville’s serious political players and who is frequently mentioned as a future mayoral candidate, was not interviewed in Brinton’s televised report. Covington seemed content to go about his job of dispensing license plates and collecting auto registration fees. He seemed, in fact, just to keep his toes dangling in the political pool.
The FBI just kept asking questions. Last week, on July 3, Brinton reported new details about the probe, offering clues to the identities of figures who have testified before a federal grand jury investigating Covington’s office. Brinton reported that the investigation was continuing apace and that several unnamed witnesses have been subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury to answer questions about Covington’s activities.
Whenever the words “federal grand jury” appear in connection with any public figure, ears perk up all over town. After all, it was a federal grand jury that indicted former Sheriff Fate Thomas for misuse of his political office. Thomas eventually went to prison. And it was a federal grand jury that investigated Bill Boner’s affairs in the mid-’80s. Even though Boner was never indicted, legal bills nearly bankrupted him.
Details of the Covington investigation, which has thus far gone strangely unreported in the two daily newspapers, are being kept close to chest. Such secretiveness on all sides raises questions about both the seriousness of the investigation and about what it may mean for one of Metro’s most prominent officeholders.
Sources close to Covington say the investigation is the result of baseless allegations, charges by a discontented former employee, or maybe several former employees. They say that the investigation is a political witch hunt destined to come up short. In the end, they say that Covington, who is known far and wide as a joke-cracking, fun-loving kind of a fellow, will once again rest easily. They are convinced that the investigation will prove fruitless.
Nevertheless, others say that the questions the FBI has asked about Covington are the same sorts of questions that led to the indictment and conviction of former Sheriff Thomas. Former Covington employees have raised allegations of phantom workers on the payroll and Metro Government computers used for political purposes.
The FBI, which will not discuss the investigation and will not even confirm or deny that a investigation is going on, is not a politically driven agency. It doesn’t just start up investigations because some political foe of Covington wants it toat least not since J. Edgar Hoover left the scene. What’s more, the federal agency has talked with several people who have intimate knowledge of the way Covington runs his office. And they are continuing to talk with even more insiders.
Covington’s defenders may find comfort when it comes to the credibility of the people who are making allegations against him. At least a few of the people questioned by the feds are known for their own checkered backgrounds. They may have bones to pick, and they may have axes to grind. To an investigator, or before a grand jury, their motives might well be questioned.
Meanwhile, insiders admit that Covington is concerned. And who wouldn’t be? He has told at least one person that he has had reservations about hiring an attorney because it might make him look even guiltier. Reportedly, the FBI has not contacted him or asked him any questions at all.
Bill Covington was first elected to local public office when he ran for an East Nashville seat in Metro Council in 1975. Four years later, he left Metro Council to represent the powerful District 52 in the state Legislature The man he succeeded was William Hill “Bill” Boner.
Covington, 48, is a product of East Nashville. He grew up in the part of town that has produced noteworthy political figures such as former Mayor Richard Fulton and a slew of others who have passed through the Metro Courthouse. In East Nashville, politics is a distinct social art form, and Covington, with his charm, affability and friendliness, has mastered its every nuance.
Covington left the Legislature when he was elected county clerk in 1986, and it is in the clerk’s office, many Metro Government officials say, that he excelled. He brought solid management to the job; he actually reduced office spending. Today, his staff is 30 people smaller than when he first took office. Under his watch, the clerk’s office has been computerized.
Covington was an early backer of Phil Bredesen, signing on to support him for mayor at a time when other East Nashville political types were still uncertain about the wealthy West Nashvillian. Later, however, during Bredesen’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign, Covington had a falling out with the mayor. Covington was irked when Bredesen’s office failed to intercede after he recommended an acquaintance for a job at NES.
It was only for a lineman’s job, but to Covington, the snub was worth a major confrontation. The incident demonstrated Covington’s tendency to develop and hold grudges. It showed that he could transform a small matter into a big, troublesome deal.
Recently, Covington has had a behind-the-scenes involvement in several political races, most notably the state Senate race between incumbent state Sen. Joe Haynes, a Democrat, and Republican Metro Council member Vic Varallo. Covington acknowledges that he has provided advice to Varallo. The reason, many say, is Covington’s concern that he may have to face Haynes in a 1999 mayoral race. Basically, insiders suggest, Covington wants to cripple a potential opponent even before the mayoral race gets under way.
The FBI investigation began when Covington’s executive assistant, Edith Stromatt, took her storycomplete with notesto “Eighth and Broad,” the site of the FBI’s offices. Stromatt went to the feds after the Metro Benefit Board in February denied her application for an “in-line-of-duty” disability pension. Stromatt claimed she had been injured on the job, which would have meant more money to her. Covington had challenged her, saying the injury had not taken place on the job.
Stromatt started working at the Metro County Clerk’s office in 1978. She has now taken her claims case to Davidson County Chancery Court, where she says, in a lawsuit, that the Benefit Board denied her due process and equal protection of the law. Stromatt’s court challenge, filed by local attorney Charles Ray, claims, among other things, that she was “subjected to demands that she take part in questionable, and in some cases illegal, activity or lose her position.”
Stromatt claims her doctor has diagnosed her as having an “adjustment disorder with emotional features” and depression, results of the demands made of her by Covington. She “was accused by Bill Covington of having rifled through his desk, and due to the attendant anxiety and depression caused by this event, was incapacitated and rendered incapable of performing her job duties,” the suit claims.
An answer filed by Metro attorneys John Kennedy and Michael Safely denies Stromatt’s version of events but does not elaborate.
In an interview with the Scene, Stromatt confirmed that she has talked with the FBI and has told them everything she knows. She declined to discuss details, saying she did not want to jeopardize the investigation.
Covington disputes Stromatt’s version of events. In a statement faxed to the Scene, Covington explains, “Mrs. Stromatt has been receiving a disability check for psychological disorders since September of last year. She has said that she doesn’t like this kind of check because taxes are deducted from it. For the last 17 months, she has demanded an in-the-line-of-duty pension, which is a lifetime tax free pension, so much so that I was threatened with personal and political ruination if I didn’t agree to go along with her claim.... I flatly refused to lobby the Benefit Board for or against her claim.
“Furthermore, I insisted that the Board thoroughly investigate her allegations, which she said supported her claim for the lifetime tax-free pension. They did so and found her allegations without any substantiation whatsoever.... The evidence clearly demonstrates that she has been plotting for years the best way to obtain a lifetime tax-free pension, and this is obviously without regard for anyone but herself. I consider the visit to the FBI simply making good on the threat.”
The Scene has also learned that others have been interviewed by the FBI. Pat Frye, a former Metro Council member who worked in Covington’s office before leaving to run her campaign in 1987, confirmed that she has spoken with the agency.
“Covington told me he would help me and do everything he could to get me elected,” Frye says. “I’m sure he was responsible for getting me elected. [Covington’s] office did my mailouts. The FBI asked me about that.”
Covington disputes Frye’s claim that his office mailed her campaign materials. He acknowledges that he helped her design a campaign mail piece. But he says that session took place on a Saturday in his office, not during weekday work hours. He says he did not “mail” the piece. “I just helped design it,” Covington says.
Covington also notes that, when Frye ran for Council in 1987, she asked for a leave of absence from his office. He told her that he did not want it to appear as if the campaign were being run out of his office and that her only option, if she decided to run, would be to resign. “So she left,” Covington says.
Frye has seen her share of controversies. Elected to the Metro Council in 1987 for a single term, Frye created a tempest when she said she didn’t want to be called at home by constituents. She sent a memo to city department heads and to the mayor, saying that under no circumstances was her home number to be given to constituents. Instead, she said, she wanted calls referred to “the appropriate department.”
“My job is not fixing potholes,” Frye said at the time. “I don’t need pothole calls. This is a part-time job, and I spend 80 hours a week doing it.”
In 1988 Frye, who sells real estate, admitted that she regularly solicited business from developers who approached her for help on zoning matters in her district. In 1989, Frye got into trouble over an argument with an Antioch High School guidance counselor, who did not approve of the shoes Frye’s daughter wanted to wear to a baccalaureate ceremony at a Baptist church. During the argument Frye allegedly used a racial slur, an allegation she denied. In 1992, in a bid for the state Legislature, Frye lost to incumbent Rep. Beth Halteman Harwell, a Republican.
Still, Frye, who is now promoting her autobiographical book on domestic violence, says she has information to offer the FBI. Her claim that Covington’s office produced her Metro Council campaign mailings is perhaps her most damning allegation, and she concedes she made a mistake by accepting the assistance.
“He was doing it for everybody,” Frye says. “I guess I thought to myself, ‘Do I let it slide here so I can do something better later?’ I knew it wasn’t right, but I thought in the long run I would do more good than it would do harm.”
Frye, who says she worked on Covington’s campaign for the clerk’s office and later felt rejected by him, also alleges that Covington used Metro personnel to help in the construction of his sizable house on Baker Road in Goodlettsville. At various times, she claims, Covington placed campaign helpers on the office payroll without requiring them to report to the office.
She also says she introduced Covington to the Rev. Enoch Fuzz, pastor of Corinthian Baptist Church. Fuzz has also been interviewed by the FBI. According to Channel 5’s Brinton, Fuzz has also testified before the federal grand jury.
Frye says that, at the time of Covington’s campaign for the county clerk’s office in 1986, she took him to a Denny’s restaurant in North Nashville to introduce him to Fuzz and to other black pastors.
At the time, Fuzz often served as a broker between elected officials and black ministers. According to Frye and another source, Fuzz would take payment in exchange for the promise of votes from the black community.
Fuzz was in fact placed on the payroll in the county clerk’s office, as a part-time seasonal employee, for about five months in 1987, but Frye, who worked as a bookkeeper in the office at that time, says she rarely saw him in the office.
“As far as I know, he never did a job for the county clerk, for the city,” she says.
Fuzz, meanwhile, refuses to comment. “I don’t know anything about that, and I wouldn’t talk about it if I did,” he told the Scene. “I don’t think the media should be talking about what our government is doing.”
The specifics of the FBI investigation still have not been made public. However, the Scene has learned that former Metro Council member Edith Taylor Langster, now a member of the state Legislature, has been interviewed by the FBI. Sources say that she was asked about payment for the labels on some of her campaign mailings. The Scene has learned that former state Rep. Dick Clark, who served in the Legislature at the same time as Covington, has been questioned by the bureau as well.
Bruce Dobie contributed to this article.
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