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Slippery Slope

Are politics and human nature about to go on trial again?

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The working theory just now is that former state senator John Ford, who has been doing time elsewhere for two different crimes of extortion, both involving selling his office, has been temporarily transferred to federal prison facilities in Shelby County so he can testify against a physician who once contributed to Ford's legal defense fund and then wanted his help in passing a bill.

I can't help but be reminded of the first of two earlier proceedings in which the government came a cropper trying to criminalize the principle of quid pro quo. In one — directed at former city councilman Ed Ford Sr., the former senator's brother, and given the jazzy subtitle of Operation Main Street Sweeper — the feds seemed to have a case.

The chief witness against Councilman Ford was Joe Cooper, a longtime pol of many connections with an unquenchable lifelong thirst for self-inflicted trouble. The FBI hooked into him on a recidivist turn by Cooper, who, as a member of the old Shelby County Court, was first convicted in the 1970s for contracting "referee loans," i.e., collecting money that was borrowed in other people's names and on their credit. Some of those other folks were fancy pols and social pillars themselves but were legally unmolested.

Almost three decades later, Cooper did something similar. In a sense, and without meaning to, he caught himself red-handed and turned himself in. A Cadillac salesman by now, he'd sold a car to a drug dealer, using somebody else — his own wife — as the buyer of record. When the dealer skipped, Cooper cried stolen car and called the cops, who in turn squeezed the miscreant, and Cooper stood to take another fall, this one for "money laundering."

That would be partly expiated when Cooper in turn agreed to set up two councilman pals, Rickey Peete and Ed Ford. Both would be accused of taking planted money to further an ordinance desired by a developer friend of Cooper's. Open and shut? Peete thought so and copped a plea. Ford didn't and was rewarded when Cooper, on the surveillance tape, was heard discussing with Ford the multitude of loans, friendship arrangements, and scratch-my-back transactions he had going with Ford, his acquaintance of many years.

Ultimately, there were so many deals in the air that it proved impossible for jurors to keep track of the one marked ball among the many.

And, aye, there's the rub. Ford was acquitted, and the U.S. Attorney's Office didn't even bother trying a second case against Ed Ford — this one charging him and former MLGW director Joseph Lee with illegal collusion. Ford, initially a skeptic about Lee, a protégé of Mayor Willie Herenton, had voted to confirm him, and Lee apparently would look the other way about Ford's massively unpaid utility bills for his funeral parlor.

That was it, and after the earlier acquittal, it must have looked, even to the feds, like a routine, if extreme, piece of quid pro quo. One hand washes the other. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. Like politics as usual, in short. Like the way people deal with each other in the marketplace, in the office. Like the way people are.

But now we have the federal government knocking again at the same door — in an indictment which reminds us that in April 2005 John Ford, already in potential serious trouble as a paid "consultant" for firms doing business with the state (and this was just before he was nailed in the Tennessee Waltz scandal!) had set up a legal defense fund.

And here came a Dr. Robert D. Morgan, who happened, says the indictment against him, to be "lobbying to get legislative support for a prescription drug bill to benefit psychologists," and this Dr. Morgan contributed money to Senator Ford's legal defense fund. And now Dr. Morgan is about to go on trial for that.

(Tell me there's not a deity, and a playful one at that! Had we not just learned that another utterly unrelated Morgan, named Vince, is a previously unsuspected son of John Ford's, a New York banker running for Congress?)

Well, lookit, you have to wonder if Dr. Morgan's predicament will put in jeopardy every big-bucks contributor to a politician who ever subsequently went to Nashville or Albany or Washington or maybe just to a cocktail party and put the squeeze on his man for a preferred piece of legislation.

Believe me, it happens every day.

Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.

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