NASHVILLE -- LetÕs put it this way: A C Wharton had a harder time on Capitol Hill Wednesday than John Ford did.

The Shelby County mayor had a showdown for real with members of the General Assembly and got some serious backtalk for his pains. The state Senator had what amounted to a mutual back-scratch session with members of the Senate Ethics Committee, who basically offered him forgiveness for what he Ð and they Ð seem inclined to regard as Òoversights.Ó

John's Reprieve

Ford, who had been summoned to testify before his colleagues on the Ethics Committee, had a real boost going into his moment of truth. He had heard himself lionized in the Senate, just before adjournment, by soul-music legend Isaac Hayes during the course of the Memphis entertainerÕs response to an official Senate resolution in his honor. John Ford is Òmy friend,Ó Hayes pronounced, and Ford, making the most of the moment, went on to claim that he, his brother Harold, and his brother (former state Representative) Emmitt were all financed in their first races by Isaac Hayes. They were, Ford suggested, virtually HaysÕ creations.

As preambles to what could have been an inquisition, that was about as good as it gets. The Ethics Committee hearing came in the late afternoon, immediately after that edifying occasion in the Senate chamber. There were times during the hearing when Ford, flanked by his two lawyers at a table and facing the committee members up on the dais, seemed nervous, but as things wore on, it became obvious that the barely controlled tremor in his voice was due more to outrage at being haled before his peers.

ÓI have been impugned by others for reasons other than a violation,Ó Ford said early in his testimony. Further: ÒWhat this is all about is my integrity and the integrity of this body.Ó

As bizarre as that might have seemed to those whose sense of the case against Ford was based on TV teases and newspaper headlines, it conformed neatly with advance word from Senate sources that the FordÕs lodge brothers, regardless of party, would close ranks around him.

Long story short: They did. Committee chairman Ron Ramsey, who doubles as the RepublicansÕ majority leader, might have been expected to lead the charge against Ford, and he declined to accept the argument of Ford Ð and, it seemed, Senate clerk Russell Humphrey Ð that senators had liberty to offer late amendments to their financial disclosures, something Ford just did, in the wake of allegations by one Barry Schmittou, the citizen whose complaint against the senator was the proximate cause of the Ethics Committee hearing.

But Ramsey seemed to speak for the body when he ended up using the word ÒmistakeÓ to describe FordÕs original omission of his ÒconsultingÓ arrangements in the Memphis senatorÕs first set of disclosures for both 2003 and 2004. Indeed, the committeeÕs discussion of the matter came to focus on the simple issue of whether the word ÒconsultingÓ should have appeared in the list of the senatorÕs income sources.

ÓI have complied with every law,Ó Ford said. ÒI missed writing one word by error. I didnÕt even realize it.Ó No one on the committee seriously contested that, although Nashville Senator Doug Henry probed a few other issues and came closest to a serious interrogation.

In the end, the committee decided that Ford shoulda come cleaner on the disclosure issue but that another issue, that of the senatorÕs alleged improper use of campaign funds (some reportedly spent on a daughterÕs lavish wedding), was not the committeeÕs purview, nor was a third matter, that of whether Ford actually lived in his district, which was treated, basically, as too complex and inscrutable to judge.

The committee will produce a formal report in something like 14 days, Ramsey said. Ford offered his gratitude for a ÒfairÓ hearing.

The only audible dissenter to this harmony was Schmittou, who asked in vain to be allowed to interrogate Ford and to request documents but was allowed his fifteen minutes, literally, of venting. ÒI am a party to this,Ó Schmittou insisted. ÒIÕm a citizen up here fighting for other citizens.Ó And he took personally RamseyÕs assertion, ÒWe donÕt want this to be a media circus, to be perfectly honest.Ó

Schmittou made it clear later that, even if the Ethics Committee had essentially washed its hands of the Ford matter, he hadnÕt, and would be heard from again. Perhaps more ominously for the senator, the FBI has been looking into the records of FordÕs lucrative relationship with a consulting company and the dimensions of its Ð and his Ð involvement with the awarding of TennCareÕs dental-care contract Ð the potential conflict-of-interest issue that has aroused most red-flag interest. ÒThereÕs nothing for a court of law to decide,Ó insisted Sen. Ford at WednesdayÕs hearing.

A C's Dilemma

County mayor Wharton has made frequent pilgrimages to Nashville of late, on behalf of proposed revenue measures pushed by his administration and approved by the county commission. He was at it again Wednesday, as the featured speaker at the regularly weekly luncheon of the Shelby County legislative delegation. It was County Government day on Capitol Hill, and other Shelby County officials were on the bill, including Sheriff Mark Luttrell and District Attorney General Bill Gibbons Ð all discussing their desired legislation.

WhartonÕs appearance dominated both because of his rank and because of what he insisted was the urgency of devising some means other than Òthe everlasting escalation of the property taxÓ to fill Shelby CountyÕs dangerously starved coffers. The administration, backed by an 11-0 vote of the county commission, is pushing a real estate transfer tax that would yield some $10 to $15 million in annual revenue, but, like any other tax proposal, that one has met with resistance.

With that in mind, a somewhat testy Wharton put it straight to his audience of legislators.

ÓIf yÕall come up with another bill, youÕll find me marching alongside you,Ó he said. ÒBut this is the only horse I have right now. It may be a lame horse but itÕs still in the race. Other horses havenÕt shown up yet.Ó

As he goaded the delegation to action on his tax measure, the county mayor vowed, ÒIÕll be here by day and in your districts by night. Take the chains off the local hands and let us mold a revenue package that is close to the desires and wishes of the people of Shelby CountyÓ If the county had to pass another property-tax increase, it would, Wharton said, but he suggested that would be Òdriven by what happens or fails to happen here.Ó

Representative John DeBerry protested at that: ÒOne thing I wonÕt accept is anybody saying this delegation is to blame,Ó he said, turning WhartonÕs charge of inaction against county government itself. ÒNothing is happening now that we didnÕt say would happen five years ago, Things got out of hand, and now weÕve got to hold our nose.Ó He said, ÒI request and implore that his delegation be indemnified from blame.Ó

Things lightened up a bit later on, when state Senator Mark Norris offered what seemed like a deal. ÒWeÕre looking for a package that can be put together,Ó Norris said. ÒWe need a comprehensive solutionÉPeople want a [legislative] on their taxes, but they also want a vote on their schools.Ó Norris is a leading proponent of legislation to create a special county school district Ð the Òelephant in the room,Ó as he described it Wednesday. Responded A C: ÒWeÕve had some talks with school officials, and youÕd be surprised at the room for agreement that exists.Ó

That was the one note of harmony in a session that otherwise generated measurable tension.

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