Another John Ford Trial?

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The John Ford saga isn't over, but some friends of the former senator would probably breathe easier if it were.

Ford plans to appeal his conviction on a federal bribery charge in the Tennessee Waltz investigation. Last week, he was sentenced to 66 months in prison. The FBI's undercover sting operation has withstood previous challenges, and jury verdicts are seldom overturned. But the appeal could give Ford some leverage with federal prosecutors in Nashville, where he faces a November 6th trial date on charges related to his consulting work for TennCare contractors between 2001 and 2005.

"If I were his defense attorney, I would be going to the U.S. attorney up there and saying, 'You all have already convicted my client, and he got 66 months, so what [would happen] if we dropped our appeal?'" said Hickman Ewing, former U.S. attorney in Memphis. "Maybe they would say that if he would plead guilty to one count they would make it concurrent to what he already got. The bottom line is how strong they think their case is."

In the Tennessee Waltz, Ford's "business partners" were undercover FBI agents posing as executives of E-Cycle Management while they secretly taped him. Ford was paid $55,000. In the Nashville case, Ford's main business partners were TennCare contractors Doral Dental and Omnicare Health Plan, renamed UAHC Health Plan of Tennessee. Those companies, unlike E-Cycle, are very real and paid Ford more than $800,000.

If the Nashville case goes to trial, prosecutors will have to get a conviction the old-fashioned way, because there are apparently no secret tapes. The Nashville indictment came 18 months after Ford was indicted in Tennessee Waltz and delayed the start of his Memphis trial a few months. Further complicating things, there has been a change in command in the Nashville office this year. In 2006, Craig Morford was both U.S. attorney and Ford prosecutor, but this year he moved to Washington, D.C., where he is number-two man in the attorney general's office.

Morford said the indictment revealed "an appalling willingness to violate [Ford's] duty by using his public position for personal gain."

Whether his successors share that hunger to prosecute — especially now that Ford has been convicted and sentenced — is not known. In a brief meeting with this reporter, assistant U.S. attorney Eli Richardson, one of the prosecutors in the Ford case along with Paul O'Brien, would only say that there is a hearing in September and a trial date in November. The trial already has been postponed several times since Ford was indicted on December 13, 2006.

According to the indictment, Ford owned a 40 percent interest in Managed Care Services Group (MCSG). The other owners were "Individual A" and "Individual B" in the indictment, but they have since been identified as Osbie Howard, former treasurer for the city of Memphis, and Ronald Dobbins.

Howard was one of 13 character witnesses at Ford's sentencing hearing last week. Most of them got off the stand without being challenged, but not Howard. Assistant U.S. attorney Tim DiScenza accused him of making a false statement to an FBI agent earlier this year about Ford's income tax return. Howard took the Fifth Amendment when DiScenza tried to question him further.

According to court documents filed in Nashville, Ford earned $470,414 in 2004 and $470,938 in 2003. The indictment says Ford formed MCSG to get payments from Doral Dental and hid that fact while working as a state senator and head of a TennCare committee. As a $10,000-a-month "consultant" to UAHC, Ford allegedly sponsored legislation benefiting them and met with other state officials on their behalf.

A Nashville trial could be embarrassing to other Ford "consulting" clients and business associates, including the Oseman Insurance Agency of Memphis, the Armstrong Allen law firm, Hospice USA, Connie Matthews (the mother of two of Ford's children), and former Shelby County Commission member Bridget Chisholm, among others. If the case goes to trial, it could clarify what local and state elected part-time officials who claim that their full-time occupation is "consultant" can and cannot do.

Ewing said one option for federal prosecutors is to move to dismiss the case, provided Ford cooperates regarding other people. Despite his hefty income, Ford has pleaded indigence and is being represented by federal public defenders. If Nashville prosecutors don't think he has money to pay fines that might be imposed, that could influence their decision about whether to try him again, Ewing said.

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