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Pyramid Dreams: Pyramid Schemes

How did Sidney Shlenker's Promise Die?

The Commercial Appeal October 18, 1992 By Louis Graham

Pyramid Dreams - Part 1 Pyramid Dreams - Part 2 Pyramid Dreams - Part 3

"At 76, I have no obligation to anyone in the world except my family - certainly not to politicians. In fact, if there is any obligation, it is the other way round. If my position is not crystal clear, please advise."

Clearly chafed, Morris fired back. But his letter was never mailed. "In eleven years of office, I have never received a letter quite like yours of February 24, 1989. . . .

"While I applaud your strong leadership for this project, I think that Mayor Hackett and I deserve equal credit for demonstrating a willingness to risk our careers for this project. Without our support, this pyramid would still only be a novel picture postcard drawing with little hope for construction.

"Both Mayor Hackett and I have staked our political lives on this project despite influential supporters urging us to do the contrary. If it fails, others can return to their everyday business dealings, but we will be left to defend and justify it."

TIGRETT would turn his guns toward Shlenker. But not for months. For now he continued to lead the search for financing, make regular trips to 245 Wagner, sit in on meetings, and, as Shlenker insisted, use the largest office in the suite, if only for 30 minutes.

The central concern for now was to recoup on the first design faux pas. Nothing better illustrated the growing strain of doing so than a December 1989 meeting in Los Angeles with Battaglia's successor, The Jerde Partnership.

Jon Jerde had faced such pressure before as coordinator of design work for the 1984 Olympics in L.A.

As Jerde described the situation in Memphis much later: "In short, even though you (Shlenker) had insufficient money and (an) impossible time frame, we would 'do our best.' "

The project's dominant music theme gave way to Jerde's fascination with Egypt and the pyramids. He and Isaac Tigrett had only months before traveled to Egypt to view the pyramids at Giza. That trip led to Jerde's vision of Rakapolis rising from the banks of America's Nile, the Mississippi. A script introduced the design's centerpiece, a dark ride named The Netherworld:

"Suddenly, there is another precipice. You plummet downward again. Another door is encountered. It opens just in time as you fly through. A god looms on the other side. He holds two living eyeballs in his outstretched hands."

But meeting with Jerde in Los Angeles in December, Shlenker railed at the estimated $16 million cost for the ride. He had just come from a trade show in Atlanta. He could get one for $2 million. And in days he faced another presentation of his ideas to Morris and Hackett. This time the budget had to be right; they could not afford another embarrassing misfire.

The meeting dragged on so long that other clients began lining up outside the conference room - not to meet with Jerde, but for the company's Christmas party. A bar was rolled into the hallway. The party began there.

To cut the price, a new building would not be erected for The Netherworld. It would come crashing through roof and floors of Mud Island's main building and into the Mississippi River Museum. Ironically, it was there, in the Rivercenter, that Shlenker and Jerde presented their plan on Dec. 19.

But Jerde would not reveal the estimated cost of the project for months. When he did, Rakapolis died a quick death. The $110 million price tag was far better than Battaglia, but still twice the projected budget.

Jerde was fired in June 1990 as the Mud Island designer. But not before the construction fences had gone up on Mud Island. Not before the bulldozers moved in, peeled back some dirt and crashed through a $1.1 million playground.

THE company grew ever more starved for cash with each month that passed with no final design and no construction loan.

Now into its second year with no steady source of cash, the company survived on periodic, and most often last-minute, transfusions.

Tigrett anted up. Then Shlenker or companies in which he had an ownership stake. PACE provided $1.15 million. A company chartered to distribute the proceeds of the Nuggets sale, WSIH, wired funds to Memphis. Most often the money went out to pay a bill as soon as it came in.

For three nights in April 1990, Shlenker wined and dined potential members of a private club he planned for the pyramid. At stake was another source of cash.

True to the adage that it takes money to make money, he spared no expense. He was frustrated, in fact, that there were no juggling bartenders for hire anywhere in Memphis.

Instead, guests were greeted by Mike Carnahan, by day a trucking company sales account executive, by night an actor. Carnahan, dressed first as Groucho Marx, then as Father Guido Sarducci, then Billy Crystal's Fernando, set the mood each night.

"You look maaaahvelous, darling!" Carnahan exclaimed to the arriving guests. Would-be members sipped champagne and savored caviar. A small boat held hundreds of pounds of fresh seafood. The aroma of $4,000 worth of fresh flowers competed with the scent of the food prepared by three caterers.

A pianist played in the dining room, an acoustic duo strummed in the living room, and The Bluebeats, a popular Memphis rock band, pounded away in the upstairs ballroom.

Memberships trickled in.

Of the 66 who signed up, either at the parties or over the following weeks, few paid the $10,000 in cash; most made $500 down payments. Just $291,000 was raised.

But the bills for the three extravagant nights rolled in just as they had for the Big Dig. The cost: $84,093.

The promotional material described the club as "refuge for the deserving." But those who signed on are members of a far less exclusive club today. They are among 200 unsecured creditors in The Pyramid Companies' bankruptcy.

In deepest are 18 individuals - doctors, lawyers, businessmen - who paid the $10,000 fee in cash. Among them: City Councilman Jack Sammons.

WITH Shlenker as ringmaster, Tigrett content in the background, Memphis flirted with national prominence.

Flattering publicity rolled in from Buffalo, Orlando, Seattle and dozens of other cities - even Denver.

Shlenker told the Memphis City Council of a plan to bring $1 million worth of talent to Mud Island for a weekend jazz festival.

He said plans for a new hotel on the island were just weeks away.

He promised the world's largest video scoreboard, a $5 million wall of computer-controlled television monitors, would be installed in the arena.

He unveiled the pyramid's first major sponsorship and concession agreements, with Pepsi and Pizza Hut, that together guaranteed the project $10 million over 10 years.

But in a driving rainstorm on the Memphis riverfront May 11, 1990, Hackett and Morris were confronted with a harshly different view.

During a reception at the Memphis in May Barbecue Festival, Criss appeared unannounced. The Pyramid Companies lawyer and chief operating officer had just come from a meeting with County Atty. Brian Kuhn and arrived at Morris's tent before Kuhn could warn his boss.

The company had arranged a $3 million loan with National Bank of Commerce. The money would go to keep the designers working and to keep the company afloat. But they could not close the loan without the mayors' signature. There had been previous discussions of this. Then Criss appeared, needing the signatures there, on the spot.

The deal pledged revenue from the arena's private-seating skyboxes for a $3 million loan from NBC. The mayoral signatures assured the lender it would get its money even if Shlenker lost his contract.

The company that made ever more brazen promises, that chased $55 million in loans, needed a last-minute loan to pay its bills. And it needed the city and county's help to get it.

Hackett signed. After a tirade, so did Morris.

One crisis after another unfolded. Each time, it seemed cash from another deal arrived just in time to avert disaster.

A deal with Memphis State University freed up $1.5 million. The money was so badly needed that Bonham, Shlenker's Denver business partner, hand-carried the contract to Nashville for the required signatures of state education officials and the governor.

Federal Express and Pizza Hut paid up-front fees on sponsorship deals. The money went straight out to creditors.

In a strangely masked deal in March 1990, $900,000 arrived from Banque Paribas in Paris. The source of the funds was carefully protected. But quietly, Tigrett told key members of the company, and later outsiders, the money came from his friend Goldsmith.

The bank served as nominee and was pledged a 1 percent share of profits from the venture, just as was Perenchio.

A few months earlier, Houston Sports Association, the parent company of Leisure Management International, loaned the venture $1 million. Shlenker later hired Leisure Management to manage the arena for him. More than $370,000 immediately went out to partially repay Shlenker for a loan.

The financial vise tightened. But not just for The Pyramid Companies.

The young Los Angeles company hired to take over from Jerde perched perilously near the brink. The Omnis Co. had hired outside contractors and devoted nearly all of its small staff to the pyramid project. But its bills stacked up while monthly payments from The Pyramid Companies trickled in and Shlenker disputed some of the charges.

Omnis President John Lindsey sent an SOS:

"Sidney, you are watching the slow death of a company. Our creditors are knocking at our doors. I am dying out here and do not see any relief in sight. You have given me your word that I would not be killed by this project, but I am telling you now that it is happening.

"We have once again been unable to meet payroll this week. People are here only out of their support for Omnis. Next we will see liens and other forms of financial impact upon us. We have two pregnant women on our insurance policy, and we have infringed upon their demands as well.

"I need your help if we're going to survive."

Four days later, $60,000, enough to slow the bleeding, was wired to Los Angeles.

THE Pyramid Companies survived day to day, week to week, month to month. As it did, pieces of Shlenker's plan fell into place.

Omnis chopped millions of dollars from Jerde's over-budget design.

Teachers Insurance & Annuity, a huge national pension fund, agreed in August 1990 to provide permanent financing, the equivalent of a mortgage, once the project was built.

An exhaustive search for construction financing - beginning with the New York banks, then anyone who would listen - led Shlenker to the giant French lender Societe Generale. Negotiations progressed enough that SoGen assigned an engineering firm to evaluate the project's costs and feasibility.

Sponsorship and concession deals rolled in.

This kind of progress reassured Hackett and Morris. It gave them reason to think the deal was still possible, that sophisticated businessmen had enough faith in Shlenker and his plan to commit millions of dollars.

But a hairpin turn lay just ahead.

In early October, Tigrett was rushed to Baptist Hospital suffering from bleeding ulcers. There, on what was feared his deathbed, he tape-recorded a request to his partner - bring his son, Isaac, back into the project. The tape was dropped at Shlenker's doorstep next to his morning newspaper.

Isaac Tigrett had not had a hand in the project or its design since Shlenker emerged. He secured the Hard Rock franchise, then handed it off. A devout Hindu, he went off to help build a hospital in Andraha Pradesh, India, for the Sai Baba.

He was as much a contradiction as his father. One moment he would display his business savvy, the next describe how the Sai Baba had made a diamond materialize in his hand.

Despite a fascination with the offbeat, Shlenker wanted no part of Isaac Tigrett's idea, for instance, to install a crystal skull atop the pyramid.

Still, Shlenker thought highly of John Tigrett. And he did as his partner asked.

"Isaac, I am really excited to have you on board," Shlenker said in an October 1990 letter. "I know that your creative efforts on our behalf will yield wonderful results."

Isaac Tigrett made his fortune by marrying music with hamburgers at Hard Rock. Long before Shlenker was involved, he had hired a company to build a model of the pyramid's interior attractions. It focused heavily on music and its deep roots in Memphis.

He balked at the changes Omnis made. He said the project was off-balance. There was too much emphasis on the Egyptian theme, too little on music.

He had a strong supporter in his father. John Tigrett walked away from the hospital after the ulcer scare. He was concerned that the music theme had been all but lost in the cost-cutting move.

Isaac Tigrett coordinated yet another change in design, moving it back toward the first concept. As he did, U.S. troops moved into the Middle East.

Bankers, already nervous about the economy, now had a possible war to use as an excuse not to make the loan. A ground war had been brewing at 245 Wagner, as well.

On Dec. 22, 1990, Shlenker confronted his partner. As the clock ticked, and as SoGen investigated the project, Isaac had made numerous changes. He had to go, Shlenker said. They had to move forward with Omnis' plan; additions could be made later.

That set John Tigrett off. He already was irritated about the company's spending. Now this.

Sixteen months had passed since Union Planters loaned the company $350,000 on his and three other signatures. The Pyramid Companies had gone through millions of dollars, but it had not repaid the loan. The bank was demanding a payment.

From the outset, Tigrett insisted Shlenker take control of the project. Shlenker owned controlling interest, and as president he was responsible for the company's day-to-day operation. Now, ironically, Tigrett wanted Shlenker removed from daily control.

Tigrett showed up at a Jan. 2, 1991, meeting in Shlenker's home in East Memphis and rattled a saber. He threatened to jump from the project unless the company's expenses were brought under control. He pushed for management changes.

There, before several members of the staff, he handed a sealed envelope to Shlenker. He asked his partner not to open it until the meeting broke up. Inside was a photocopy of a letter Tigrett planned to deliver to the mayors the next day. It carried the usual "Highly Confidential" label and was written with Tigrett's trademark brusqueness:

"At the outset, as I see it, three people have their reputation at stake in the pyramid - Richard Hackett, William Morris and Sidney Shlenker. All I have at stake is a few bucks, and I can pack up my family tomorrow, move back to London and never look back this way even once . . . I mention this only to indicate my views about this matter are quite objective. . . .

"When I looked at this project long-range, I decided it could end up as a dull municipal failure or that with a P.T. Barnum it might be a striking success. I asked my friends on the West Coast to send me their best Barnum, and they did.

"I brought him here. I convinced him to stay. And I alone stand responsible for him.

"I think he has done an exceptional job thus far for what he was brought in to do. You may not like his personality - his continued media coverage - or his management style, but you cannot deny he has given this town and others an excitement and anticipation they have never had before.

"Whatever judgment failures he may have made, he is an honest man, working every hour of his life on behalf of this project that can make you two fellows big heroes. Whatever criticism you have doesn't go to him - for in this matter the buck stops right here with me."

THE letter's defense of Shlenker obscured Tigrett's intentions. Seven days later, he formally suggested what had been discussed for weeks: that Shlenker step aside from day-to-day control of the company.

The written proposal was delivered via Federal Express to Orlando where Shlenker and his young son, Josh, were visiting Disneyworld.

"The hopes we had for this project have been turned into ashes," Tigrett said in a prelude to his offer.

He proposed Bonham be installed as chief executive and take over the firm's daily operation. Both partners would give him 2.5 percent of their stock, making him a critical swing vote in any disagreement. Shlenker would move up to chairman.

Bonham became a go-between as the partnership unwound.

He came to Memphis as Shlenker's business partner and friend. But through his work, the sale of $40 million of sponsorships, he had dealt extensively with Tigrett and gained his trust. And like Shlenker, Bonham became captivated by the man. Bonham and Shlenker shared ownership of a Denver marketing company. They made Tigrett a partner. The company was paid $15,000 a month for its courtship of pyramid sponsors. The importance of those deals gave Bonham sweeping power in the company even thou gh he was not an executive as were Criss and Richards.

Bonham added yet another strong-willed, offbeat personality to the cast. He was intense and aggressive, a physical fitness fanatic. He once trained vigorously for months to set a record for situps in an hour: 3,200.

Bonham and Shlenker already had experienced several rocky moments. Bonham had, for example, quit his job with the Nuggets after only a year.

Months later he came back, wanting Shlenker to join him in a new sports marketing firm. He did, and the Nuggets became a client.

Now, Shlenker smelled a power play. He sensed that the man who made many of those early trips with him to Memphis was trying to steal his deal.

Bonham could manage the company, Shlenker said, but he rejected any change in stock ownership. He was not going to do anything that might give John Tigrett majority control.

REJECTION of the deal fueled Tigrett's growing anger.

At much the same time, details of his partner's business background appeared in the newspaper, further angering him. He had not investigated Shlenker. He brought him to Memphis purely on his friend's recommendation.

Tigrett mailed one article to Perenchio. He attached a note. The man he had sent, the man John Tigrett once viewed as a godsend, was "dead meat" in Memphis.

But Shlenker was not about to be bullied. If he left, it would be on his own terms. His lawyer, Clarence Mayer of Houston, made a counteroffer.

He proposed Tigrett reimburse Shlenker for a personal, $250,000 investment and remove him from personal liability for more than $1 million in debts.

Tigrett gagged on what he viewed as ransom.

THE fight spilled outside The Pyramid Companies offices, into the business community, and into City Hall and the Shelby County Administration Building.

With each round, the partners increased their calls to Hackett and Morris. Most often Tigrett called to complain about his partner; Shlenker to defend himself. True or not, Morris became known as a Tigrett man; Hackett a Shlenker man.

The more of this Kuhn heard the more he worried. He cautioned Hackett and Morris to stay out of the fight, to avoid taking sides. They were a party to the contract and had a legal obligation to stand clear.

Kuhn repeated two words over and over: tortuous interference, legalese for 'Don't get involved or you'll get sued.'

It put the mayors in an awkward position. They feared the deal was in peril. But they could not interfere. It had to self-destruct.

The phone calls and the bickering were more than worrisome; they grew tiresome. Hackett and Morris didn't care who hit whom first. They just wanted the company to fulfill its obligations.

Kuhn and Morris aide Tom Jones delivered that message to Tigrett and Shlenker on Feb. 15, 1991. They found Shlenker in the cardiac unit at William F. Bowld Hospital. In 30 minutes at his bedside, they told him the mayors could not be drawn into the fracas. They did, however, expect the company to perform as promised.

Shlenker, hospitalized for a reaction to medication, was upbeat. He understood.

Tigrett served his guests coffee and cookies in his Wagner Street penthouse but reacted less charitably.

After hearing Kuhn and Jones out, he sent them back with a message for the mayors:

The "liver lillied (sic) sons of bitches" were going to have to choose sides. They were going to have to do what was best for Memphis. And for the project. Shlenker had run through millions of dollars. He had personal problems.

The mayors got the message.

At a public gathering several days later, the pair approached Tigrett after having altered the nametags provided at the door. Morris's tag identified him as 'LL1,' Hackett 'LL2.'

It might have confused the other guests attending a reception for Sun Records producer Sam Phillips, but Tigrett understood.

THE war brought on an interesting realignment.

Criss had come to the project as Tigrett's lawyer. He left private practice to become an executive of The Pyramid Companies. He now answered daily to Shlenker.

That posed a delicate problem. Having represented Tigrett, Criss knew much of the man's personal business. In March, as the war raged, Criss appeared on Tigrett's doorstep to announce he could not support the action Tigrett was taking.

An angry exchange of letters followed.

Tigrett accused his former lawyer of leaking information protected by the lawyer-client privilege.

Criss fired back: he had not taken sides, but as an officer of the corporation, he had very specific obligations.

Just the opposite occurred with Bonham.

His marketing partnership with Shlenker brought him to Memphis. He was the first to follow the promoter from Denver. In the early days, he stayed in Shlenker's home when on business in Memphis. But as the feud heated up, he began staying with the Tigretts, one clear barometer of his switched allegiance.

Bonham officially broke ranks in February after having sold $44 million in sponsorships. His company had $4.4 million in commissions riding on the deals, yet he bailed out, providing the first public indication of how serious problems were.

He bought Shlenker's interest in the marketing company and quickly struck his name from the door and letterhead, leaving Tigrett his partner.

He blamed Shlenker's mismanagement for the project's deep troubles. He accused him of a breach of ethics over a decision to collect full sponsorship fees despite a dramatic scaling back of the project. He phoned Hackett and Morris with a warning.

Much later, Shlenker accused Bonham of instigating negative publicity. A Denver Post story detailing the company's problems appeared one day before Shlenker's wife, Denise, was sentenced in Denver on a drug charge.

"You have done many despicable things since January, but you have reached an all-time low now," Shlenker said in an angry letter.

"I promise you that I intend to devote a substantial amount of my time, energy and money to pursue all actions and remedies available to hold you legally accountable for your conduct."

Bonham denied any role in the story. But he did not kowtow:

"On several occasions in the last few weeks you have threatened me. As you know, I have not responded to those threats, primarily because in any confrontation, I prefer to let the opposition do all of the talking.

"However, in this instance I am just plain getting tired of it. If you are so tough and so willing to sue me or try to damage me in some other way, what in God's name is holding you up? Let's get this show on the road!"

MORE than reputations were at stake now. Both partners had sunk far more of their own money into the project than ever intended. Shlenker was responsible for more than $2.6 million in cash that went into the project; Tigrett, $2.4 million, plus the Hard Rock franchise. Plus the stock both men had tied up in the escrow account.

They were not alone.

The Pyramid Companies ran up debts to a long list of suppliers, making them, in effect, unwitting financial backers of the project. Then there was the money committed by sponsors and concessionaires.

Wang, the computer company, had never considered a sponsorship deal before. But Shlenker's proposal turned executives' heads. The resulting contract meant more would come in computer purchases than would go out in sponsorship fees.

The computer company sank thousands of dollars into design plans for an elaborate, underwater computer line between the pyramid and the island. But without a loan, The Pyramid Companies could not afford to purchase the equipment it promised to buy.

Federal Express was in the midst of serious financial problems. But after a rigorous review process, the company signed and anted up $500,000. Still, the companies controlled by a little known Kansas millionaire, O. Gene Bicknell, had far more at stake than the others combined.

Bicknell's National Pizza Co, the country's largest Pizza Hut franchisee, had signed three agreements, committing $30 million to the project.

A 10-year food and beverage deal guaranteed $21.5 million. It also provided The Pyramid Companies $2.5 million to buy and install kitchen equipment.

A second deal gave Pizza Hut restaurants controlled by Bicknell exclusive rights on the property for 10 years. Another $5 million. Pizza Hut signed on as a corporate sponsor as well. The investment put Bicknell squarely in the middle of the partners' fight.

"After three years when the city and county had finally agreed and the Public Building Authority had taken over construction, I stepped aside feeling my efforts were complete," Tigrett said in a letter to Bicknell.

"Regretfully, the man I had brought in to run the project (who) we all were told had the funds to finance the attractions turned out to have a bad case of the 'shorts.' "

Bicknell visited Tigrett's penthouse. Hackett and Morris were asked to stop by and meet him. Because of Kuhn's warning, neither stayed long. Morris was there long enough to have a scotch, Hackett a 7-Up.

Tigrett had not given up on removing Shlenker from control, either by buying him out, or through a management change. It would leave him as chairman of the board and spokesman for the project.

Bicknell seemed a good replacement. He liked the project. And he had money. Lots of it. His holdings in National Pizza were worth at least $200 million. He was conservative with his money. There were very few excesses. Yet he was anything but bland.

He had been bitten by the acting bug and bankrolled two movies in which he appeared. In Gypsy Angels, a film about a stunt pilot and go-go dancer, Bicknell appeared in a bed scene with then unknown actress Vanna White.

He was bitten, too, with the political bug. He was the former mayor of Pittsburg, Kan. He spent an estimated $1 million of his own money on an unsuccesful bid to become Kansas governor. The money went down the drain as he and his running mate sparred. The pair finished fourth in the August 1986 Republican primary.

That eccentricity didn't prevent Bicknell from becoming a cog in Tigrett's plan. Tigrett lobbied Hackett and Morris about a new group that would step in, infuse $5 million, lash together the loan and complete the project.

Bicknell made a second trip to Memphis, this time meeting Hackett at his office in City Hall. Hackett drove him back to the airport.

History was repeating itself: Tigrett worked the political system as he had in 1987 to win public funding for the pyramid.

Morris and Hackett seemed afraid to listen. And afraid not to.

LESS than six months remained before the scheduled May 29, 1991, opening.

As the partners' war raged and financial problems intensified, the project resembled a cancer patient. The prognosis was grim, but there remained hope for a miracle.

Tigrett pushed the new ownership group. Shlenker fought back by hiring Memphis lawyer Bobby Cox, who had deep roots in the city's corporate warrens. Cox and his partner Frank Watson, if nothing else, could counter Tigrett's quiet, behind-the-scenes offensive. At best, they could resolve the feud or put together a new group of investors.

Tigrett put his own lawyers to work. Later, in an April 11 letter dictated to Morris at 4 a.m., Tigrett put it this way:

"The best idea, after some consultation, is for me to have the lawyers do the trading and for me to stay as far away as possible (but available). One sound reason is that this man's (Shlenker's) record is that he sues everybody, and there is no sense in giving him material if things go wrong and no agreement is made."

Federal Express Corp. Chairman Frederick W. Smith, perhaps the city's most powerful businessman, became heavily involved. Cox and Tigrett were members of his board of directors. Smith spent time with Shlenker, reviewing his business plan. Despite his efforts, Smith could not push through a compromise or a new group of investors.

More than anything, the nagging problem with the escrow account - that $3 million safety net for taxpayers - drove down the mayors' confidence.

Shlenker and Tigrett twice had bought time by agreeing to replace the GOI stock. The city and county couldn't be sure what it was worth; they wanted it out of the account. Each time they failed to do so.

With the partnership in tatters, Tigrett was not about to help Shlenker. If Shlenker was to survive, he would do it on his own.

Hackett, facing re-election, watched the game of boardroom chicken with growing alarm. If Mud Island didn't open for the '91 season, his political opponents could stand in front of the park's locked gates and rile voters about the deal he'd struck.

The mayor made a spur-of-the-moment visit to assess the condition of the park in March. There, on the grounds, he worried aloud that the deal had cost him the election, his career.

It was Hackett's second visit to the park. The first, in September 1990, had stopped the bulldozers. Don't tear anything else out until you've got the money to build something in its place, he told Shlenker.

That first visit, coincidentally, took place the same day the morning headlines revealed Denise Shlenker had been arrested in Denver on drug charges.

When he arrived in Memphis, Shlenker was married. But the young blonde he introduced around Memphis as Denise Shlenker was his live-in girlfriend, not his wife. The couple had a child, and Denise Paladino had legally changed her last name to Shlenker.

They did not marry until Shlenker's divorce in Houston and until Denise returned from the Betty Ford Clinic after her arrest.

This might have gone unnoticed in Denver or Los Angeles or even Houston. But this was Memphis. The Buckle of the Bible Belt. It provided an uncomfortable association for a politician such as Hackett, who built a reputation on conservative values.

Hackett first met Denise Shlenker during an uneasy few moments at a Memphis State football game. It was there, in his private box, that Shlenker introduced her to Hackett and his guests, including Rev. Adrian Rogers.

Now, as the partnership unwound, Shlenker's personal life, too, became cannon fodder.

EACH time Hackett and Morris accepted Shlenker's confident reassurances that a loan was near, they edged further onto a political limb. At one point the city mayor told a Memphis television reporter he'd been assured the loan was forthcoming "any hour."

Shlenker called Hackett regularly, sometimes late at night, to report his progress. With each "daily call," as Hackett began calling it, the reassurances became less believable.