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VOL. 43 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 22, 2019

‘He’s a nice guy if you tell him the truth’

Phil Williams: Nashville’s most feared journalist

By Sheile Burke

Print | Front Page | Email this story

Phil Williams is often described as the most feared man in local journalism. The longtime chief investigative reporter for WTVF-NewsChannel 5 has spent the last three decades in Nashville bringing down corrupt politicians, outing incompetents in public office – along with the shady machinations that put them in power in the first place – and exposing all manner of wrongdoing.

The 58-year-old journo has made a career out of piling up casualties of ambitious, overreaching politicians. He was the reporter who broke the news that former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry was having an extramarital affair with her bodyguard. And in doing so, he raised questions about whether taxpayers were footing the bill for the illicit trysts.

He led the reporting that ended the short, scandal-plagued tenure of Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada, although Williams credits the former speaker with bringing about his own downfall.

His investigations have sent people to jail, driven politicians to rewrite laws and turned powerful men into mice scampering for cover at the sight of him – and the camera.

If you ask Williams how he’s able to expose all this wrongdoing, he credits his longevity in the market. Younger reporters, he says, can sometimes take shortcuts and alienate sources.

“I’ve tried to be very careful to be tough but fair and not burn bridges so that my reputation suffers,” Williams says. “And so I have had people who were the subjects of investigations call me up years later and want to rat out someone else. So, I think that’s the benefit of having been around for a long time.”

He’s hung around while most news organizations have been hemorrhaging investigative journalists, replacing them with younger, less-experienced and less-expensive reporters.

There’s no doubt Williams has developed a rich dossier of sources over the years. He grew up in Nashville, started out as a print reporter and spent six years writing for The Tennessean before leaving for TV news. He’s now in his 21st year at WTVF.

But those who know Williams credit his success with more than the length of time he’s spent reporting on local news. He’s been described as relentless when he gets a whiff of a good story. And those who taught him at Middle Tennessee State University say they knew early on that Williams was going to do great things.

“He was the best student who ever graduated from the school of journalism,” says Ed Kimbrell, professor emeritus of journalism at MTSU and the founding chair of the school’s Mass Communications Department.

Kimbrell remembers Williams as a real fighter for the First Amendment, even then.

“At the same time, he’s nice, he’s very forthcoming,” Kimbrell says. “He’s not abusive. He’s very committed to his work, and that’s the reason why he’s the best investigative reporter in Tennessee today on television.”

Investigative journalism seems to be in Williams’ blood, although he admits that making the jump from newspaper to TV news was a difficult transition.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m still learning the TV part, just because it didn’t come naturally to me,” he acknowledges. The silver-haired reporter with the nasally voice does not always have the crispest television delivery. But he has the admiration of the seasoned TV professionals who work with him.

“He’s very tenacious,” says WTVF News Director Sandy Boonstra, who described Williams as never going off the clock. “He’s very thorough. He cares so much about the journalism that he’s doing.”

And while he is dogged, Boonstra adds, he’s a thoughtful person who is well-liked around the station.

Williams says he wanted to become a Church of Christ minister when he was young. He’s still devout, but the reporter has since converted to Catholicism. Despite his dreams of becoming a preacher, Williams spent early years at papers where he frequently exposed his own schools.

As editor of the McGavock High School newspaper, Williams remembers sneaking into the school through an unlocked window on weekends so he could work.

“There was a crazy rumor that went around that the cafeteria staff was putting saltpeter in the food to tone down teen libidos,” Williams recalls. “And so one weekend I went and snuck into the cafeteria to look for any sign of saltpeter that might be affecting our teen hormones.”

Williams credits his paternal grandmother with helping him develop an interest in news after his family moved in with her when he was a child.

“My earliest memories are waiting for the afternoon newspaper and reading the afternoon newspaper with her. And I remember, at a very early age, discovering Jack Anderson,” Williams says of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who has been called one of the fathers of investigative journalism.

“He was kind of the ultimate muckraker, and so I fell in love with investigative reporting at a very early age.”

With three Peabody Awards on his resume, fans and foes might be surprised to learn his first journalistic investigation involved a rumor of saltpeter in the cafeteria food at McGavock High School.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Williams also says his views on journalism were framed by growing up in the time he did, when the Vietnam War still raged through parts of his childhood. He watched the Watergate hearings on live television at the age of 13.

“I had an uncle who was in the war. I watched Walter Cronkite on television. It was just an era where people were intensely questioning the government. And that struck me as a really good thing.”

While writing for MTSU’s student newspaper, Williams and another reporter decided to test the school’s new security system by breaking into virtually every major building on campus without being detected. The young reporter ended up leaving a note on the university president’s desk saying he’d been in his office.

Williams got a job working for Florida Today, a Gannett newspaper in Melbourne, Florida, right out of school. He credits his time there as helping him get better when he was forced to compete against the New York Times covering the Challenger space shuttle explosion.

Williams says being beaten by the Times on that story taught him a formidable lesson that has carried him through the rest of his career. Williams should have broken a particular story, but the U.S. Coast Guard told him that officials would only answer if a specific question was asked.

“So if you’re not precise enough with your questions, you will not get the precise answer you’re looking for,” he says. “And so, from that day on, I was very mindful of asking very precise questions and listening to the precise answer.”

After a year and a half in Florida, Williams was offered a job in his hometown writing for The Tennessean. He quickly made a name for himself and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Tennessee’s corrupt bingo charity industry scandal known as Operation Rocky Top. The paper’s investigation exposed crooked state officials and gamblers and revealed that only $2.6 million of the $124 million taken in through bingo between 1985 and 1987 actually went to charity.

More than 75 people went to prison as a result.

WKRN poached Williams away from The Tennessean after he took issue with some of the station’s reporting on the Legislature. While there, he won a Peabody Award, which is considered the most prestigious award in electronic media, for an investigation into the culture of corruption at the state Legislature via the heavy influence of special-interest lobbyists.

Williams won two more Peabody Awards after moving to WTVF. One of those was for a three-year investigation that looked at how friends of then-Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist received hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts. The reports resulted in federal indictments and a change in state contract laws.

He’s been honored for his investigation into civil forfeiture, which allows law enforcement agencies to seize money they suspect will be or has been used in illegal activities.

Authorities were using laws aimed at targeting the criminal proceeds from drug profits. But William’s investigation revealed that many immigrants became the victim of the heavy-handed policing. That investigation became a similar storyline on the TV show “The Good Wife,” which Williams says he’s confirmed was inspired by his reporting.

Williams was the first to expose high levels of lead in water at some Metro schools. His reporting also found school officials flushed out water lines to skew lead test results the day before samples were to be collected.

His recent investigations of Nashville’s former mayor and former House Speaker Casada have rocked city and state governments.

The story that Williams first broke led to Barry admitting she was having an affair at taxpayer expense. The former mayor resigned from office and pleaded guilty to felony theft of over $10,000.

As for Casada, Williams’ reporting confirmed the then-House Speaker knew that scandalous text messages involving the Republican lawmaker and his then chief of staff were authentic, even as the politician accused Williams of using fabricated texts.

Williams’ reporting revealed that Casada’s chief of staff, Cade Cothren, sent racist text messages, bragged about his illegal drug use and often made vulgar remarks about women. Some of the vulgar texts were made with the speaker himself.

In the texts, Cothren said “black people are idiots.” Another text of Cothren’s referred to Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston as a “thug n***er.” Cothren bragged to Casada in one text that he’d had sex with a woman in one of the Party Fowl restaurant bathrooms.

Casada defended Cothren while making accusations about Williams. But the investigative reporter played a secret recording of Casada that revealed the speaker knew the texts were authentic.

Williams reported that Casada’s story finally changed after the reporter revealed he had unearthed damning photos and video of the chief of staff. The photos revealed a selfie of Cothren with text bragging about taking “acid, cocaine, weed.” Cothren also texted about doing “a gram of cocaine in my office.”

Cothren resigned while admitting to some of the texts. Casada’s fellow Republicans forced him to step down.

Neither Cothren or Casada responded to messages seeking comment.

It’s not surprising that Williams was able to turn the tables on Casada, says one of the reporter’s former colleagues.

“He’s a nice guy if you tell him the truth,” says Chris Clark, the legendary former news anchor at WTFV who worked with Williams and is now a professor of journalism at MTSU.

“If you don’t tell him the truth, I’d beware.”

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