Imperfect Storm

The Ford blunder on a parole-board letter becomes a potential issue.

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Whether or not some oversight by a staff person was responsible for the ill-fated letter to the state parole board on behalf of convicted murderer Phillip Michael Britt -- sent out over 9th District U.S. representative Harold Ford Jr.'s signature and later disavowed by the congressman -- anyone who has logged any time at all in a congressional office is aware that most mail is staff-written and signed either by auto-pen or by staffers emulating the boss's signature.

The greater part of such correspondence is in response to somewhat standard requests for information or assistance or for an elaboration of the congressman's or senator's views on this or that topic of the day. And the sheer volume of incoming mail means that many inquiries are met with form letters.

For whatever reason, Britt's appeal to Ford must have found itself in a pile of such mail destined for routine treatment and was not, as it clearly should have been, directed to Ford for a discretionary response by the congressman himself. The odds for such a mischance occurring were no doubt increased by a stepped-up travel schedule on the part of Ford, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate. It is difficult to believe that the congressman, who is nothing if not cautious in his rhetoric, would have knowingly written a letter of even qualified support for Britt, who was a principal in the brutal and notorious murder-for-hire of Memphian Deborah Groseclose in 1977.

Whatever the case, it was a class-A boo-boo -- and though Ford has manfully taken responsibility for the error (enduring in the process a severe reaming-out on the air by local radio talk-show host Mike Fleming), it has already impacted his Senate race, overshadowing his endorsement by the state AFL-CIO earlier in the week that the story broke.

Sooner or later, somebody on the Ford staff will have some serious 'splaining to do. Most likely, that moment of truth has already occurred -- and not, one would assume, to the offending staffer's gratification. Expectations governing work in the congressman's office, as previously in that of his father and predecessor, a zealot for constituent service, are exacting, even by congres-sional standards.

Simultaneous with the parole-board flap, but presumably unrelated to it, Ford has been breaking in a new press secretary, Corinne Ciocia, who succeeded Zac Wright early in August. Wright had returned to his Tennessee home, it was said, as the consequence of back problems and other assorted physical complaints.

Thus did the revolving staff door swing again in the Ford congressional office.

Wright's immediate predecessor, the short-lived Carson Chandler, was reportedly fired in late 2004 for divulging to Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication for insiders, that the congressman was a frequent weekend visitor to Florida. Disclosed the periodical on November 22nd of last year: "Ford's press secretary says the Congressman goes to Miami often to visit his father, former Representative Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), and his brother."

That sort of candor, which clashed somewhat with the stereotyped notion of dutiful back-and-forthing to the district, was bad enough. But what apparently cut it with the congressman were two further revelations in the Roll Call story -- one that began this way: "Ford was chilling poolside recently at the schwanky [sic] Delano hotel in Miami. He wore a bathing suit and Washington Redskins baseball cap, puffed on a stogie, and sipped a fruity frozen drink" -- and another that dished on the congressman's alleged penchant for pricey pedicures.

Although Chandler was specifically ruled out as the source for the latter item, his name was all over the rest of the column, and the effect of the whole was to get him shown the exit.

During his tenure, which lasted a tad longer than six months, Wright committed no such gaffes. He churned out press releases and doggedly monitored Ford's press availabilities so as to exclude potentially embarrassing or unfriendly questions. But the wear and tear of his high-pressure job began to show on Wright, and his departure was not altogether a surprise.

Frist-Lott (cont'd): As fate would have it, former Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississipppi was due in Memphis this week for a booksigning, one week after an appearance here by his nemesis/successor Bill Frist, who was the subject of a decidedly unfriendly reference in Lott's newly published memoir, Herding Cats.

In the book, the Mississippian accuses former protégé Frist of "betrayal" for taking advantage of Lott's impolitic praise of centenarian Strom Thurmond in order to take over as majority leader. As noted here last week, Frist told the Flyer as far back as 1998 that he intended at some point to make a bid for the job.

After a luncheon appearance before the downtown Rotary Club at the Convention Center last Tuesday, the Tennessee senator was asked about what Lott had written:

"I've not read the comments; I've not read the book," Frist answered, then did his best to pour honey on the wound. "I have tremendous respect for Trent Lott. I've worked with him very closely. I have lunch with him two days a week. He helped me on the energy bill. He helped move America forward on the highway bill, on the recent CAFTA bill. I look forward to working with him constructively. And that's pretty much where it sits. I know that it was very difficult in the past when he, uh, sat down, and I respect his interpretation of the events that led to that. I'm really looking to the future and to my continued close work with a man I respect tremendously, Trent Lott, who's served the people of Mississippi in a very positive and constructive way."

Hurricane Kurita: The field of would-be successors to Frist, who will vacate his seat next year to prepare an expected bid for president, includes Representative Ford, a Democrat, and three Republicans -- former congressmen Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary and former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker. It also includes another Democrat, state senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, who continues to hang in there with an innovative advertising campaign on Web sites and blogs, despite some staff losses and slowdowns in her more conventional fund-raising.

Kurita, who has gained adherents among Democrats who consider Ford too ambiguously conservative, will blow into town this weekend. Her several local appearances include one before the Germantown Democratic Club at the Germantown library on Saturday morning.

New Dance Moves

Since former state senator John Ford has indicated he still intends to plead not guilty of extortion and bribery in the Tennessee Waltz scandal (and to demonstrate in the process that his government accusers were in fact the Bad Guys), it was probably inevitable that one of his fellow indictees should work things in exactly the opposite direction.

When state representative Chris Newton of Cleveland came to Memphis Tuesday morning to change his not-guilty plea to guilty in federal court, he did his best not only to present himself as an innocent in the general, not the legal, sense of the term but almost as a de facto member of the prosecution. (If he turns out to provide state's evidence in cases against others, that could turn out for real.) While praising Newton as having been "forthright," however, assistant U.S. attorney Tim DiScenza indicated Tuesday that no plea bargaining had been pursued in the case.

First, Newton responded to Judge Jon McCalla's lengthy reading of the indictment with a highly qualified plea of guilty, alleging straight-facedly that he had intended only to accept a campaign contribution but conceding that he accepted money from the bogus FBI-established eCycle firm "at least in part" to influence the course of legislation.

Talking to members of the media later, Newton lavishly praised both the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office and proclaimed that "the process of rebuilding public trust in our institutions of government, especially the Tennessee General Assembly ... begins here with me today."

Though Newton has now copped to being a felon, he was within a few dollars and a few procedures of actually being legal. DiScenza alluded in court Tuesday to a scandal within the scandal -- the fact that lobbyist/co-defendant Charles Love of Chattanooga, one of the "bagmen" in the case, had admitted skimming most of the eCycle money intended for Newton. Of the $4,500 routed his way, Newton only got $1,500 -- just $500 more than the legal limit for a contribution.

Asked by a reporter how he felt about being skimmed, Newton beamed good-naturedly and pantomimed his answer: "You're bad!"

Newton's change of plea follows that of Love's fellow bagman Barry Myers and puts pressure on the other accused -- besides Ford, state senators Kathryn Bowers and Ward Crutchfield and former state senator Roscoe Dixon -- to follow suit. This dance could be over before it really gets started good. -- JB

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