Former Tenn. state Sen. Ford found guilty of bribery

Associated Press • Apr 28, 2007 at 12:00 PM

MEMPHIS - A once-influential state senator arrested in a statewide corruption scandal that led to an overhaul of Tennessee ethics laws was convicted of taking bribes Friday and will likely serve time in federal prison.

Former Sen. John Ford, 64, was convicted of taking $55,000 in cash from what appeared to be a computer recycling outfit but was actually an FBI front company.

A statewide investigation code-named Tennessee Waltz was built around the fake company, E-Cycle Management.

Ford, a prominent member of one of Tennessee's most active political families, is to be sentenced July 31 and faces a maximum statutory sentence of 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines, though federal guidelines will call for a lighter punishment.

Another former state senator convicted last year on a similar Tennessee Waltz bribery charge drew a five-year prison term.

Ford, who left the courthouse surrounded by family members, will appeal, defense attorney Michael Scholl said.

"We fought for Mr. Ford's innocence and we're going to keep fighting," Scholl said.

The jury, which began its deliberations Wednesday, acquitted Ford on three counts of intimidating federal witnesses and failed to reach a verdict on an extortion charge.

U.S. Attorney David Kustoff said no decision had been made on taking Ford to trial again on the extortion charge.

"The bottom line is, as of today, John Ford is a convicted felon," Kustoff said

Ford was one of five current or former state lawmakers charged in the Waltz investigation in 2005 and the ensuing scandal led to a special session of the state Legislature to pass ethics reform laws.

Ford, the uncle of former congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr., was the most prominent of the Tennessee Waltz defendants, but Kustoff said all of the prosecutions "are equally important."

"It sends the message to the public that the minority of public officials who think about disregarding the law and breaching the public trust can't away with it," Kustoff said.

The prosecution's case against Ford depended heavily on secretly recorded video clips showing the Memphis Democrat stuffing his pockets with $100 bills counted out one-by-one by an undercover FBI agent.

The defense argued that Ford was set up by the FBI and thought he was being paid as a business consultant, even though he got that payment in cash.

Prosecutors, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim DiScenza, played video clips for the jury showing eight separate meetings between Ford and undercover agent L.C. McNiel at which stacks of cash changed hands.

Jurors also listened to dozens of undercover audio recordings on which Ford and McNiel talked about E-Cycle's desire to change state law for a business advantage. The trial started April 9.

Ford did not testify at the trial, and Scholl focused the defense on trying to discredit government witnesses. He accused undercover agents of lying to Ford and enticing him with expensive nights on the town and trips to Miami.

In all, 11 people have been charged in the Tennessee Waltz investigation, including several local officials in Memphis and Chattanooga.

Former state Sen. Roscoe Dixon, D-Memphis, was convicted on Tennessee Waltz bribery charges in November and is in prison. Former Rep. Chris Newton, R-Cleveland, pleaded guilty to bribery and served a nine-month sentence. Sen. Ward Crutchfield, D-Chattanooga, and former Sen. Kathryn Bowers, D-Memphis, are awaiting trial. Ford also faces unrelated federal charges in Nashville on accusations of taking $800,000 in improper payments from state contractors. Ford, his siblings and their offspring are part of a local political dynasty that first came to power in the 1970s. Harold Ford Sr., the Democratic Senate candidate's father, beat a white incumbent in 1974 to become Tennessee's first black congressman. That election also sent John Ford to the state Senate. He gave up the seat after his indictment in 2005 and it is now held by his sister Ophelia. Harold Ford Sr. was in Congress for 22 years and was succeeded by his oldest son in 1996. Harold Ford Jr. left the House to run for the U.S. Senate last year, narrowly losing to Republican Bob Corker in a race that drew national attention. Ford Jr. is still heavily involved in politics, serving as chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. AP-CS-04-27-07 1945EDT

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