Phil Williams, the WTVF-Channel 5 investigative reporter with the nasal voice and regular-Joe mustache, has made a career ending careers, authoring televised executions of creaky pols whose capital crimes are evident to even the dimmest viewer. He has a gift for escorting public officials to the wrong side of a courtroom. Just ask former state Sen. Jerry Cooper, who, after Williams exposed how he used taxpayer money to finance a land deal, was indicted on three felony fraud charges and forced to retire from the legislature—though at least he avoided conviction.
So it was an odd sight last week to see Williams, in the midst of testifying for the prosecution in the federal corruption trial of former state Sen. John Ford, badgering no less a patsy than a softball coach for using a mail-order degree to land a job at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Maybe that's why it was so amusing—and a guilty pleasure rivaling the best (or worst?) reality television. Even when Williams sets his sights low, he's still packs a punch unknown to his airbrushed peers.
Last week, the most feared reporter on Nashville's air took on obscure government employees for touting anemic academic credentials. His best target was Eddie Andrews, a vice president at Nashville Electric Service, who earned an MBA from Kennedy-Western University. A congressional investigation four year ago revealed the school to be little more than a diploma mill, churning out fraudulent degrees to whoever could afford them. The school's tests were open-book and multiple-choice, and if students flunked, they could simply keep retaking them until they passed. But a spokesperson for NES said Andrews had no clue Kennedy-Western was a sham institution, "because the course work seemed difficult."
Kind of makes you wonder how many NES executives it takes to screw in a light bulb.
Even worse, NES shelled out $15,000 in public funds for the not-so-higher education of Andrews and two colleagues.
Williams then turned his sights to our state's public colleges, reporting how several professors burnished their résumés with degrees from institutions about as intellectually rigorous as a Larry the Cable Guy movie. Their pursuits were not born of mere vanity. Professor Michael Wright boasted a pair of Ph.D.s from a university forced to shutter its doors in Hawaii, then Australia—but not before he used them to pull in an extra $1,700 annually from Southwest Tennessee Community College.
Still, the best moment in the series came when the stakes were the lowest and Williams barged into the office of an irritable man named Frank Reed. He's the softball coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. To be hired, Reed needed a college degree, so he listed his diploma from Western States, a now-defunct company that offered "life experience" degrees for serving as a tutor or volunteer fireman.
Reed didn't return Williams' phone calls, so the reporter confronted the coach at his office, where the middle-aged man with a mop of thick brown hair looked like he was about to pull a Michael Douglas in Falling Down as he quietly denied any wrongdoing. Later, Williams asked a university spokesperson if the coach met minimum requirements for a legitimate degree.
"Well, it said bachelor's degree," the flack replied. "There's no adjective there."
"That kind of reaction is a gift," Williams tells Desperately. "You can't make that up."
For a reporter, Williams lives a charmed life. Last week, while dim-witted professors around the state trembled at the prospect of finding themselves mocked on television, the Channel 5 ace found himself in the unusual position of testifying for the prosecution in the federal corruption trial of state Sen. John Ford. In 2005, after federal authorities first booked Ford, Williams slyly walked into the Memphis Democrat's office and rummaged through his desk. He discovered a note or two from an HMO that suggested the lawmaker was taking bribes.
Williams isn't the only TV reporter fleshing out solid stories. For months now, WSMV-Channel 4 anchor Demetria Kalodimos has found a second wind, painstakingly sketching the shadowy life of Jerome Barrett, who was arrested in May for the 1975 murder of Marcia Trimble.
Kalodimos uncovered a series of astonishing details about the original police investigation into Nashville's most infamous crime. Chief among them: Detectives received a tip after Trimble disappeared that she was being held for ransom at a North Nashville mosque. As it turns out, that's where Barrett worshipped when the 9-year-old girl went missing.
Not too long ago, we would have read about the finer details of the Trimble case in The Tennessean. But as the daily now picks and chooses which big stories it wants to cover, the local newscasts—even with their grim-faced reports of bats with rabies and fires at empty duplexes—actually matter.
It's hardly a coincidence that Williams and Kalodimos have been reporting in Nashville for over 20 years. Most of their peers in print don't know who Bill Boner was. And it's going to take a while for them to catch up—no matter where they went to college.
There ya go! White Patriots and angry ones at that!
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