Want to know who donated money to the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, the secretive nonprofit organization that steers local criminal justice policy?
Go online. A list of 2018 donors is now on the commission’s website, despite the commission’s repeated insistence that as a nonprofit, it has no obligation to release the names of its donors.
The largest donors, giving at least $100,000, are AutoZone; Memphis Tomorrow, a group of CEOs that’s been described as “the most important and powerful group in Memphis you never heard of;” the First Tennessee Foundation; Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, the region’s largest hospital; the Hyde Family Foundation, which was started by the grandfather of AutoZone founder Pitt Hyde; the Plough Foundation; International Paper; and Southeastern Asset Management, founded by Mason Hawkins, who also created the Pyramid Peak Foundation, which, in 2015, reported more than $363 million in assets.
The identities of the commission’s donors and the amounts given are just a few of the records sought by The Marshall Project and MLK50.com founder Wendi C. Thomas in a lawsuit filed last week.
Lawyers for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Memphis law firm Adams and Reese LLP, which filed the suit, argue the crime commission, whose board includes the mayor, the district attorney and other public officials, is the “functional equivalent” of a government agency and thus subject to public disclosure laws.
“The public has a right to know how the commission affects the lives of people in Memphis and the surrounding communities, and we hope this action will shed light on the governmental functions the commission performs,” said Katie Townsend, the legal director of the Reporters Committee.
It’s not clear if the crime commission’s donor list was posted after the lawsuit was filed; the crime commission did not immediately respond to an email.
The Crime Commission is a nonprofit corporation funded privately and with no governmental authority. It is not subject to the public records act,” Linda Russell, vice president of communication and development at the commission, has said.
At least one member of both the Shelby County Commission and the crime commission believes the nonprofit should open its records like any entity influencing public policy.
“As chair of law enforcement, courts and corrections for the Shelby County Commission, I am appointed to the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission,” said District 7 Commissioner Tami Sawyer, who urged Bill Gibbons, crime commission president, “to be swift and transparent in response to the lawsuit.” Gibbons was the district attorney in Shelby County and is the head of the Public Safety Institute, which is housed at the University of Memphis.
The commission plays a key role in setting local criminal justice policy. Its 50-member board links criminal justice and other top public officials with business leaders, sets long-term goals for reducing crime in Memphis and Shelby County, and raises private money to support its Operation: Safe Community initiative.
In 2017, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland raised $6.1 million in private donations for bonuses to keep officers from quitting and recruit others. The money was funneled through the crime commission, and the mayor said then he would not identify the donors.
In October 2018, after repeated requests by Thomas and The Marshall Project, MSCC released the names of organizations and businesses that contributed the $6.1 million donation.
Read the lawsuit:
Read more about philanthropy in Memphis:
MLK50 editor Wendi C. Thomas, senior writer Kevin McKenzie and managing editor Deborah Douglas contributed to this story.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.