What recently threatened the health and well-being of a judge? According to his honor, a letter asking that WTVF-Channel 5 reporter Phil Williams’ parking ticket be dismissed nearly caused a stroke.
Apparent from court recordings of a Wednesday morning special hearing with Judge Dan Eisenstein presiding, the judge’s blood pressure spiked at times as he contemplated why a letter was sent to the Traffic Violations Bureau from the police department, on letterhead that included the mayor's name, requesting that Williams’ parking ticket be dismissed.
Eisenstein asked why the department would request that a parking ticket be dismissed for an award-winning reporter who has done stories on fixing tickets.
The issue came up after Williams received two tickets on June 3 for parking in a media parking space without displaying anything indicating he was a member of the media.
Before he worked his way up from the officer who wrote the tickets to the captain in charge of that officer, Eisenstein referred back to stories — particularly one titled “It Appears That Somebody Knows Somebody” — reported by Williams on secret dealings with the police department and judges that Eisenstein felt put him through the wringer for something he didn’t do.
The letter before Eisenstein read, “In the interest of justice the Metropolitan Police Department is asking to intervene in the second ticket that was issued to Mr. Phil Williams and ask that it be dismissed.”
The judge said others told him he was being set up.
“I was being asked to do exactly what I had been accused of doing, which I hadn’t done,” he said.
Metro police spokesman Don Aaron later told The City Paper that police property guards issued the two tickets while Williams was in a meeting with a police captain, and when Williams came out, the guard realized he was a member of the media.
“The police department on its own believed that the issuance of the first citation was proper because it saw no markings on that vehicle, but the supervisors over the property guards determined the second citation should not have been issued, and out of fairness, they should request a dismissal,” Aaron said. “And Williams was told of that. Williams did not ask for anything.”
Before that incident, it was standard procedure to write one ticket and then follow up with another ticket later if the vehicle was still in violation.
Police Capt. Rita Baker, executive officer in the department’s Administrative Services Bureau, the office over the property guards, told Eisenstein she wasn’t aware that multiple tickets were being written.
She said she didn’t believe that was the proper procedure. Once she became aware that was happening, she directed her officers that the proper procedure was one ticket and then the vehicle is towed.
Eisenstein said the only reason the incident made it to the captain was because Williams was the one cited, and he in fact got two breaks that day because his vehicle wasn’t towed and the police department sent a letter requesting one of the tickets be dismissed.
“If I was doing something special for Phil Williams, your honor,” Baker said, “I would have asked that both tickets be dismissed.”
At one point during the hearing, others waiting to take their tickets before a judge were told to move to another courtroom. As they were leaving, one man shouted, “Yeah, I want some of that special treatment.”
Earlier, Eisenstein had referred to a May 26, 2009, directive from Mayor Karl Dean stating, “Each employee of the Metropolitan government shall avoid any action … which might result in or create the appearance of giving preferential treatment to any person.”
Eisenstein said he probably would have dismissed the ticket if it had been addressed in open court but the letter was “highly irregular” and gave the appearance that somebody “got treated differently than all the other people in Davidson County.”
In a 40-minute questioning of Aaron, who said he was blindsided, Eisenstein asked the police spokesman if he told Williams not to worry about the second ticket, and that it would be handled.
Aaron answered, “I told him that we were going to request the dismissal of the second ticket because it was deemed by the administration of the property guards — the officer who supervised the property guards — that the second ticket should not have been issued.”
“Are you serious? Who told you that, Metro legal?” Eisenstein asked, who also wondered why others weren’t told their tickets would be dismissed as well.
Baker, who said she didn’t know Williams, sent the letter. But Aaron, the judge said, getting back to the “somebody knows somebody” theme, knew Williams and Williams knew Aaron.
“I’m sure he said, ‘Alright now, just treat me like everybody else, I’ll pay both of them.’ ‘Stop that. I want to be treated like everybody else.’ Did he say that to you?” Eisenstein asked Aaron.
After a previous hearing regarding the tickets, Aaron said he told Williams it looked like the tickets wouldn’t be dismissed, and Williams said he would pay the two tickets.
“There’s no explanation as to why in the interest of justice this should be dismissed,” Eisenstein said.
“The reason I’ve gone through all this … is the best disinfectant on anything that smacks of impropriety is truth and openness. That is the only disinfectant. Trust me; I’ve learned that in six years of being on the bench.”
Aaron said the department believed it was doing everything “above board” by sending the letter.
Eisenstein refused to dismiss the ticket and said that wouldn’t happen without a full hearing on the matter.