By Marc Perrusquia, Memphis Commercial Appeal
Memphis police are investigating allegations by a former topless club cocktail waitress that she was recruited as bait in a plot to blackmail Mayor Willie Herenton by luring him into a sexual rendezvous.
The waitress, who has told her story to Herenton and Police Director Larry Godwin and who says she will file legal papers today, says the plot was never consummated.
Yet, Gwendolyn D. Smith has touched off an official inquiry with her account, contending that she’s been paid as much as $18,000 — money she says came from rich businessmen trying to smear Herenton, the city’s first black elected mayor, to keep him from seeking a fifth term in October.
“I think the city of Memphis should know what so-called powerful businessmen are doing to their leaders,” Smith told The Commercial Appeal on Wednesday.
“I think it should upset not only the African-American community, but the whole city.”
Herenton confirmed that Memphis police took a tape-recorded statement from Smith after she approached him earlier this spring with her account. Herenton said he was initially suspicious but became convinced after she repeated it to Godwin and another officer.
“I’m utterly appalled, disappointed and I’m just simply shocked that individuals in this community would go to an unreasonable extent to try to embarrass me by orchestrating such a diabolical plot,” Herenton said.
Smith, 29, contends the plot’s mastermind was Richard Fields, a prominent Memphis attorney who represented her in a criminal forgery case and who also once served as Herenton’s personal lawyer.
“I’m amazed that Richard, who was my former attorney, an individual who purported to be a friend, really just went off the deep end,” Herenton said.
Reached Wednesday evening, Fields said legal ethics forbid him from commenting on Smith’s contentions.
“This is totally untrue. I wish I could go further,” Fields said. “If she waives the attorney-client privilege, I’ll be happy to respond to all allegations. Ms. Smith has some serious problems personally as well as legally.”
Smith, a cousin of one of Fields’ ex-wives, said the lawyer recruited her into a plot to smear Herenton after he represented her in a criminal case in Nashville.
Smith pleaded guilty in 2004 to five felony forgery counts after she defrauded merchants with stolen American Express gift checks and counterfeit identification. Faced with a drug charge that violated her probation, Smith hired Fields in 2005 and he worked out a deal to keep her from jail by extending her probation.
Smith said she was smoking marijuana at the time, but has since amended her ways. “I’ve learned my lesson,” she said.
Smith said Fields later learned that she had worked in 2000 as a waitress at Platinum Plus, a notorious East Memphis topless club closed by state and federal authorities in December.
She said Fields initially asked her to help in an FBI investigation but that his interests later turned to her having a secretly videotaped sexual encounter with the mayor.
“He told me to try to sleep with him and (Herenton’s longtime friend and former mayoral aide) Reginald French,” Smith said.
The plan, she said, was to approach Herenton at The Peabody’s lobby, where he and French were known to socialize. Smith said Fields paid her $2,000 a month between January and March — money she was told came from a prominent Memphis businessman — and that Fields also gave her the use of an account at a boutique where she bought expensive handbags and accessories.
Smith said Fields promised her a free apartment and other perks paid for by businessmen who were behind his plans.
One offer, she said, came from car dealer Russell Gwatney, who offered to give her a new Chevy Tahoe. Smith’s account caused Herenton to summon Gwatney, an old political supporter, to his City Hall office.
“I got a call from Willie Herenton wanting me to come down to his office. He said, ‘Russell you’re going to be named in a lawsuit,’ ” Gwatney told a reporter Wednesday. Gwatney said he told the mayor he knew of no plot but confirmed that Fields and Smith had come to him about two months ago inquiring about a car.
“She came in our dealership one time, and Rich Fields came in there and told me that he needed to buy a car for the girl,” Gwatney said. “And he told me that people were going to pay for the car, but they wanted to me to basically front all the money on the car.”
Gwatney said he refused.
He told the newspaper Fields was interested in getting Smith a small SUV and assured the car dealer he would be paid back.
“They wanted me to front the money to pay for the car so they could pay me back over time. I got real uninterested real quick.”
“I don’t know who the business people were, don’t even know.”
If I were to start giving out awards for the best sex scandal, this would be it.