Tuesday, May 01, 2007

John Ford Convicted: An Era In Tennessee Politics Closed...Or Is It???

John Ford Verdict: Convicted

Tapes Show Ex-Senator As Power Broker With Influence For Sale

By Marc Perrusquia
April 28, 2007

Nikki Boertman/The Commercial Appeal
John Ford's daughter, Kemba, clears a path for the former state senator and attorney Michael Scholl outside the Clifford Davis Federal Building after the guilty verdict Friday.

News Analysis

This time Teflon John didn't slip away.

After three decades of flirting with jail, former state senator John Ford was convicted Friday on a single count of bribery.

"When you're a Teflon type, it makes you a target," said Larry Moore, a University of Memphis professor who's known Ford for years and marveled at his ability to get in and out of trouble.

Ford always won in the past -- he beat charges involving a 1973 police chase, a 1990 shooting and a 1997 shotgun incident, among others.

"In a way, it's a landmark moment," Moore said. "But they got the Teflon Don too," he said, referring to the late New York mob boss John Gotti. "All it takes is one conviction."

So how did prosecutors do it?

In the end, it boiled down to those damning tapes, hours and hours of them -- undercover video and audio recordings that showed Ford stuffing cash into his pockets and vowing to help a sham FBI company win an exclusive state contract.

"The tapes took the jury there," prosecutor Tim DiScenza said moments after Ford was found guilty of taking $55,000 in cash bribes for his influence.

"It showed them what happened."

Trial evidence shows Ford had something else working against him, too: his own boasting and his legendary appetite for women and money.

"You're talking to the guy who makes the deals," Ford bragged to an undercover agent in a now-famous taped conversation that landed him in the FBI's Tennessee Waltz sting.

The FBI set up the sting in 2003 in response to investigative leads that originally led to others. But when Ford showed up unannounced at an April 19, 2004, reception at a Nashville steakhouse, his alarming statements put a target on his back.

The Memphis Democrat bragged of $45,000-a-month payments from a state contractor -- now the substance of a separate corruption indictment against him in Nashville -- and local government contracts he could deliver with brothers on the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission.

"I control the vote on both places,'' he said on the audiotape.

"It's very, very, very difficult to beat tapes like that," said Neil P. Cohen, a retired University of Tennessee law professor who said before the verdict that a monkey would fly out of his body if Ford won with his entrapment defense.

"Those tapes speak for themselves."

A woman factored into Ford's Waltz dance in the form of Mina Knox, a sultry 26-year-old model and former pro football cheerleader who testified she's been dating Ford, 64, since meeting him in July 2004 in Miami.

Agents lured the senator to Miami with a room in a swank hotel and outings on a 50-foot yacht and in hip nightclubs.

It was in Miami that Ford made his decision to draft legislation for the FBI's fake company, E-Cycle Management Inc.

Testifying in Ford's defense, Knox, a Memphian, said she flew to Miami at the request of the FBI's Waltz informant, Tim Willis. Just how much meeting Knox and partying in Miami factored into Ford's decision to carry E-Cycle's water or how it affected the verdict may never be known.

Ford left the Clifford Davis Federal Building on Friday without comment, and jurors, kept anonymous at trial, were whisked away in a white van.

But tapes make it clear Ford had a good time in Miami and was suddenly eager to do E-Cycle's bidding.

"Book me. I'm on board. Whatever we need to do," Ford told undercover agent L.C. McNeil on a July 17, 2004, tape as they drove to the Miami airport for the senator's return home. Ford said on the tape he'd need $3,000 to $5,000 a month and he expressed interest in E-Cycle's stock down the road.

A month after the Miami trip, McNeil began paying Ford cash, starting with $10,000 -- all in $100 bills -- on Aug. 19, 2004.

Eight videotapes that show Ford taking cash payoffs over the next eight months were the pillars of the prosecution's case.

Ford's defense alleged that he was a legitimate consultant who was baited into taking payments by the partying and by undercover agent McNeil's cover story that he produced music and movie scores.

Yet as prosecutor Lorraine Craig told jurors in closing arguments, Ford is always seen on the tapes taking the money after vowing to draft, file or push legislation intended to land E-Cycle an exclusive contract to recycle state government's surplus computer equipment.

The tape's fly-on-the-wall perspective showed an unfiltered Ford at his very worst. He constantly bragged of sexual conquests, spoke in menacing terms of rivals and referred to women as "bitches" and "fine mother (expletive)."

Although convicted, Ford did escape four of the five counts against him. That happened when defense lawyer Michael Scholl used the FBI's own tapes against them, playing those that landed on the government's cutting room floor.

The defense tapes portrayed Ford as cool and indifferent to the undercover operation's early advances. Hopeful to the end, Scholl vowed an appeal.

"We're going to keep on fighting," he said.

-- Marc Perrusquia: 901-529-2545

The verdicts

COUNT 1: Extortion -- Hung jury/mistrial
COUNT 2: Bribery -- Guilty
COUNT 3: Witness intimidation -- Not guilty
COUNT 4: Witness intimidation -- Not guilty
COUNT 5: Witness intimidation -- Not guilty

Copyright 2007, commercialappeal.com - Memphis, TN. All Rights Reserved.

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