Reginald Eggerson works hard to make ends meet, hustling odd jobs despite a rare, disabling birth defect that’s contorted his arms and limited his opportunities.
For him, every dollar counts.
So it was with some reluctance when Eggerson recently shelled out several hundred dollars for a lawyer to pursue a disability claim.
It was doubly devastating when he learned that the man he’d hired for his legal work wasn’t a lawyer after all.
According to court records, Eggerson paid $1,500 to Bretran R. “Bret” Thompson, a disbarred attorney who lost his license decades ago for stealing client funds. A former elected member of the Tennessee House of Representatives and one-time rising star within Memphis’s Democratic Party, Thompson has been convicted several times since his 1996 disbarment for posing as a lawyer and then stealing money from “clients” who hire him for services he can’t legally perform.
With at least 14 felony convictions for theft, forgery and impersonating a lawyer, Thompson is under indictment once again in Criminal Court, accused of stealing thousands of dollars from Eggerson and a second victim.
But the thing that really aggravates Eggerson is how Thompson is supported by a range of political candidates — even sitting judges — who’ve paid him thousands of dollars in recent years as a campaign consultant even as he accumulates an ever-growing list of victims.
“I am so mad right now I can’t even see straight. Because all these judges, all these people, are enabling him to go out and prey on people such as myself,” said Eggerson, 57, who may be among as many as 20 victims stretching back to the 1990s.
An investigation by the Institute for Public Service Reporting found Thompson has received more than $120,000 since 2012 from the campaign coffers of a range of local candidates.
That includes at least $8,500 from Chancery Court Judge Jim Kyle and another $11,400 from Circuit Court Judge Felicia Corbin-Johnson, both of whom hired Thompson during their contentious 2014 campaigns and have paid him again in the months leading to the upcoming Aug. 4 Shelby County elections despite running unopposed.
Even as Thompson faced years of unpaid fines and fees along with fresh charges filed in August, General Sessions Criminal Court Judge Bill Anderson paid the consultant $6,000 in the weeks leading up to Friday’s start of early voting.
Former Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Nichols paid Thompson $4,000 in 2018. The money came in two payments that year during the former prosecutor’s unsuccessful bid to retain the seat that then-Gov. Bill Haslam had appointed her to months earlier.
“It’s very unfortunate that when we elect judges, you have these very questionable, unsavory … political alliances that need to be formed to obtain and to keep a judicial seat,’’ said Richard W. Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and former chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush.
Like other authorities contacted by The Institute, Painter said he knew of no laws or judicial canons that would prohibit such payments. But, Painter said, the payments evidence the often-messy complications of electing state judges rather than appointing them as is done in the federal system.
“It stinks,’’ Anderson agreed. The judge said he really didn’t want to hire Thompson. But with little influence in Memphis’s inner city, he needs help wooing voters there, he said, and the well-connected Thompson is eminently qualified to help.
“It’s the American way, unfortunately.’’
Judges aren’t the only ones paying Thompson.
Records show Shelby County’s elected tax collector, Trustee Regina M. Newman, has paid Thompson more than $8,000 during the current campaign even as a now-closed company headquartered at his home owes nearly $500 in delinquent taxes incurred between 2014 and 2019.
But available records suggest no candidate has steered more money to Thompson in recent years than has state Rep. Dwayne Thompson (no relation), a Cordova Democrat who’s paid the political operative at least $23,000 since 2016 for advertising, supplying campaign workers and providing strategic advice.
Fall from power
“I knew his abilities,’’ said Dwayne Thompson, a white Democrat, describing how Bret Thompson, an African American who grew up in Whitehaven, helped him unseat 10-year Republican incumbent Steve McManus in Cordova’s racially diverse District 96 House race in 2016.
Records show the candidate paid the consultant more than $18,000 that year for “lit drops” — dropping campaign literature on doorsteps — neighborhood canvassing and general advice.
“I knew he’d had a couple of convictions in the past,’’ Dwayne Thompson said. He said he was unaware of Bret Thompson’s large number of convictions, evidently because the consultant’s repeated guilty pleas to multiple counts were so spread out and distant in time, coming during six separate prosecutions between 1995 and 2009.
Keeping it all straight appears difficult even for the criminal justice system. Criminal Court’s online database attributes at least 14 felony convictions to Thompson. Paper files inspected by The Institute indicate as many as 16. He’s been incarcerated multiple times.
Even Thompson seems uncertain just how much his record should matter to voters or campaign contributors as they size up candidates doing business with him.
“That’s a question for the public to answer,’’ Thompson, 63, said during a brief phone call earlier this week, offering this about his many convictions:
“I will say this: We fall down and we get up.’’
In all, The Institute identified $121,076 from 27 separate candidates between 2012 and this year by searching online databases maintained by the state and the Shelby County Election Commission.
The total likely is larger — possibly much larger — due to a variety of factors that limited The Institute’s search. Among them, some candidates still file paper reports. And reports continue trickling in even after filing deadlines have passed. In addition, the county’s database limits searches and is not nearly as user friendly as is the one maintained by the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, which archives reports filed by candidates for the General Assembly, district attorney, public defender and many judicial seats.
Indeed, Thompson says his payments are much higher.
“It would be more than that just this year,’’ he said when shown an earlier compilation with a total of about $116,000.
One reason for that, Thompson said, is because some of his consulting income involves “third-party payments’’ that aren’t reflected in public reports. He described it like this: Candidates often hire other consultants who then subcontract work to Thompson to distribute signs, advertise, arrange church rallies and help get out the vote — the full-service consulting work he so readily provides because of his many years in politics.
Thompson first rose to political prominence in 1992 when he was elected to represent House District 84, stretching from Whitehaven to Hickory Hill.
A graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law, he ran a general law practice while participating in organizations ranging from the Boy Scouts to the NAACP and championing a variety of causes, including public safety and economic development in the inner city.
But just months into his one-and-only two-year term in the General Assembly, the Tennessee Supreme Court suspended Thompson from the practice of law.
Court records and news accounts describe a startling fall from power.
The Supreme Court suspended Thompson in September 1993 amid allegations that he “engaged in a pattern of misappropriation of trust funds’’ involving at least five separate clients. Sixteen months later, in January 1996, the court disbarred him.
It was a crushing setback that triggered an outpouring of support from his many friends in politics.
“… We and many others plan to assist ‘Bret’ in each and every way deemed appropriate as long as he honestly and fully complies with the mandates of the court,’’ House members Joe Towns and Barbara Cooper wrote in 1999 on official state letterhead to then-Criminal Court Judge James Beasley.
“It is our honest plea for the Court’s consideration and mercy. …’’
But trouble kept coming.
Prosecutors filed criminal charges against Thompson for withholding a court judgment from one of his former clients. Pleading guilty in August 1996, he was ordered to pay $37,000 in restitution to the 64-year-old woman.
Weeks later, he faced eight new charges involving three additional victims.
Prosecutors alleged in November 1996 indictments that he’d falsified signatures on insurance forms to intercept funds intended for people for whom the disbarred attorney was performing legal services — work he no longer was licensed to do.
Records show he later pleaded guilty to seven felony counts of theft, forgery and impersonation of a licensed professional. A misdemeanor count was dropped.
He was ordered to pay a total of $7,816 in restitution.
Between 1999 and 2009, he would plead guilty to eight additional felonies for theft and impersonation of a licensed professional involving six additional victims.
“I have experienced periods of deep depression,’’ one victim told investigators in 1999. “I have been left with a feeling of vulnerability and violated. My family now questions my decisions. There is a feeling of distrust.’’
Then, for a decade, Thompson’s legal issues eased.
Along the way, he reinvigorated his political career.
No longer was he a front man in the spotlight, but a behind-the-curtain consultant who increasingly found work helping candidates connect with voters in Memphis’s inner city.
One was Corbin-Johnson, a former corporate attorney who entered a crowded, four-candidate race in 2014 for Circuit Court’s open Division I seat. State campaign finance reports show Corbin-Johnson paid Thompson $6,100 during her successful campaign, hiring him to help post political signs and provide advice and other services.
Though she’s running unopposed this time, records show she’s made four payments to Thompson totaling $5,300 over the past 13 months, several made before she knew she wouldn’t have opposition. The purpose of the payments listed in reports states simply, “political consulting.”
She declined to discuss the payments.
“I don’t have any comment regarding Bret Thompson,’’ Corbin-Johnson said. “I work with many different consultants and all of them have contributed value to my campaigns.’’
Chancellor Kyle, too, found success with Thompson in 2014, paying him $1,500 during a heated, four-way race for the Chancery Court Part II seat. A former longtime state senator, Kyle knew Thompson when he was in the House and had hired him to consult in his campaigns for the General Assembly.
Confident in Thompson’s abilities, Kyle said he paid the consultant another $2,500 in May 2021 as a retainer before he knew he would have no competition in this year’s race.
Kyle said he didn’t know about Thompson’s many convictions or his recent indictment, saying he was uncertain if that should be viewed as a problem by voters.
“I think in some voters’ minds, it would be,’’ he said. “But I believe in more voters’ minds, at least my analysis of it, is I need folks like Bret during election season to help me get the message out that I’m running for office again.’’
Battling an opponent for Circuit Court’s open Division VI bench, lawyer Stuart Breakstone paid Thompson $9,000 in four payments between March and May of this year.
“I didn’t know about his criminal past,’’ said Breakstone, who is making his first run for office. He said Thompson has performed efficiently, finding discounted prices on political yard signs and disseminating them.
“I’ve definitely tried to be a good steward of the money that my contributors have been kind enough to help support me with.”
But others said they could not in good conscience hire Thompson.
“We were advised not to do business with Bret Thompson because of his history,’’ said Erim Sarinoglu, an assistant public defender who is running for General Session Criminal Court’s Division X seat. “Judicial candidates have a responsibility beyond regular candidates.’’
Bill Anderson said he realizes the optics aren’t good for him — a sitting General Sessions Criminal Court judge who tries defendants and sends some to jail — to be paying a defendant like Thompson. Anderson’s latest campaign finance report filed in May lists a $6,000 payment.
Thompson’s case has not been in Anderson’s court and the judge has no connection to it.
“I am paying him for very specific things,’’ Anderson said, citing work that includes handing out political materials and arranging speaking engagements.
“I read the rules backwards and forwards on political candidates. I read the rules on ethics. And I could find absolutely nothing that prohibited me (from doing this). And had I found anything that would have prohibited me, I would have followed it,’’ he said.
Among non-judicial candidates paying Thompson this campaign, Newman, the County Trustee responsible for collecting taxes, is notable. Available records show the Democrat has paid Thompson $8,480 since 2020 as she heads toward an August showdown with Republican challenger Steve Basar. That includes a $3,000 payment listed in her April filing.
“Everyone knows he was disbarred many, many years ago. Whatever else doesn’t change his good campaign work,’’ Newman wrote in an email that characterized Thompson’s work as, “political consulting, arranging events, advertising, arranging crews to put up signs and put out literature.’’
But as Thompson accumulates more paydays, questions surround tax payments by a company listed at his longtime home and business address on Shelby Drive in Whitehaven. The firm, Memphis Luxury Car Rental, owes $495 in personal property taxes, interest and penalties incurred between 2014 and 2019, Trustee’s records show.
Thompson confirmed he once ran the company.
“That was the past tense. I do not have that company anymore,’’ he said. Asked if he was responsible for paying the bill, Thompson said, “I don’t even know.’’
The Trustee’s Office said in an email that Memphis Luxury Car Rental is now closed. Delinquent taxpayers receive several notices a year, and one “would have been’’ mailed to the car rental firm’s address on record last month, the Trustee’s Office said.
Like Breakstone, Dwayne Thompson, the House District 96 representative, downplayed his connection to Bret Thompson.
He said he didn’t hire the consultant this year because he’s running unopposed. But even earlier, he’d weaned off the consultant, paying him $3,700 during the 2018 campaign and just $1,250 in 2020.
“I conducted my campaign very ethically,’’ Dwayne Thompson said of the 2016 race when he relied heavily on Bret Thompson. “We were going to conduct ourselves legally and make sure that … Bret understood that.’’
More trouble brews
But as Thompson built his political consulting career, he also found more legal trouble.
He was arrested in August 2019 after Eggerson and a second Memphian told police that the disbarred lawyer was pretending once again to be an attorney.
According to Criminal Court records, one of the alleged victims, Deborah Rogers, hired Thompson in January 2019 to help her obtain letters of testamentary in connection with the death of a relative. Rogers wired Thompson $2,950 that February for attorney fees and paid him a total of $4,450 before learning from the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility that Thompson doesn’t have a law license, records say.
In a phone interview, Rogers said Thompson cheated her out of $6,000 altogether.
“I explained to him that, ‘I do know your background. And the only thing I’m asking you to do is to give me my $6,000 back (and) my aunt’s death certificate, I will not press charges on you.’ He became irate and ugly to me,” Rogers said.
Eggerson, too, says Thompson grew angry as the truth started unfolding about his disbarment. At first, the former lawyer refused to take his calls.
“So, I just set up the phone and called him about 20 times. Back to back. Back to back. He said, ‘If you call my phone one more (obscenity) time, I’m going to come over there and whip your ass. So at that point, I had to do something. Because I felt like he was telling me that because of my disability,” said Eggerson, who suffers from arthrogryposis, a disease causing contractures or distortions of the joints.
According to court records, Eggerson had hired Thompson to help appeal the loss of Social Security benefits. Eggerson paid Thompson $1,500, a police affidavit alleges, and he received $300 back, for a loss of $1,200.
A grand jury indicted Thompson on the allegations last August. Charged with four felonies, he faces an Aug. 11 hearing. He declined to comment on the case.
Given Thompson’s many political contacts, Eggerson said he’s not confident that justice will be done.
“I really, truly don’t think nothing’s going to happen to him,” he said.
This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.