Politics » Politics Feature

Battle Wounds

Senator Ford's are reopened; Wharton gets new ones; and Willingham promises some.



NASHVILLE -- John Ford's case is beginning to resemble the apocryphal one about the child who murdered both parents and then asked the court for mercy on grounds that he was an orphan.

The beleaguered state senator from South Memphis (and other points) sounded such a note last week when he petitioned a Shelby County court for lowered child-support payments on grounds that he has suffered the loss of a lucrative annual consulting contract worth almost $300,000.

Ford has lost that contract, of course, in the aftermath of court procedures that revealed it and other previously unknown income and in the wake of a raft of subsequent investigations into the senator's affairs. The fact was that Ford's decision to contest an increase in child support by one of the mothers of his several children was what led to the disclosure -- and to raised child-support payments.

Next, the consulting company that had employed Ford (and had also represented a dental provider which landed an exclusive TennCare contract with the state) dropped Ford in the wake of all the publicity.

And that, to complete the circle, made the senator unable to come up with the add-on child support just ordered by the court. If Ford had quietly agreed to the increase in the first place, he doubtless would have avoided the chain of circumstances that now has him bound up tight.

As of last week, Ford seemed to have a decent chance to escape some of his recent misery -- which, for starters, includes separate probes by the state Senate Ethics Committee, the state Election Registry, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Last Wednesday, the members of the Ethics Committee sat Ford before them and did their best to give the benefit of the doubt to the senator. (They basically offered their colleague forgiveness for what he -- and they -- seem inclined to regard as "oversights.") It appeared that Ford was halfway out of the woods.

Events later in the week worsened the senator's predicament, however. The first of those was a meeting on Thursday of the six members of the state Election Registry, who gave themselves every chance to be as lenient as the Ethics Committee had been. But, almost despite themselves, they backed and filled themselves into the most decisive action against Ford so far -- a show-cause order demanding more complete information from Ford concerning his challenged campaign expenditures.

Several early motions -- all based on a citizen complaint from one Barry Schmittou -- had failed. It was only when member Karen Dunavant made a show-cause motion which made no reference to the Schmittou complaint that the Registry formally put the onus of proof on Ford. The senator has 30 days to demonstrate why his expenditures, notably his apparent use of campaign funds to pay for a daughter's lavish wedding, do not merit sanctions from the Registry.

The successful motion by Dunavant, a Republican appointee from Memphis, came as something of a surprise. Up to that point, she had seemed reluctant to turn the screws on Democrat Ford. During the discussion of the wedding video, she lamented, "Lovely girl! It's too bad she has to go through all this."

The only dissenting vote on Dunavant's motion came, ironically, from Nashville lawyer William Long, another Republican, who had made the earlier motion throwing the ball back into complainant Schmittou's court.

"I've known Senator Ford for almost 30 years," said Long, who went on to suggest that without the senator and his records on hand it was improper to proceed. Echoing statements made by members of the Ethics Committee the day before, Long suggested that media pressure was the true cause of the various inquiries under way.

Member George Harding of Lebanon, a Democratic appointee, expostulated at one point: "You're just trying to get this thing put off because Senator Ford is a friend of yours." Long asked for, and at length got, an apology for those words.

Schmittou, who is well-known on Capitol Hill for his protests against various governmental actions and whose formal complaints against Ford are the proximate cause of the multiple investigations now going on, professed himself satisfied after the hearing and opined that the Ethics Committee could have used somebody like Harding on Wednesday.

Ford had a real boost going into his moment of truth with the Ethics Committee. He had heard himself lionized in the Senate, just before adjournment, by soul-music legend Isaac Hayes during the course of the Memphis entertainer's response to an official Senate resolution in his honor. John Ford is "my friend," 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) Emmett were all financed in their first races by Isaac Hayes. They were, Ford suggested, virtually Hayes' creations.

As preambles to what could have been an inquisition, that was about as good as it got. The Ethics Committee hearing came in the late afternoon Wednesday, 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 hauled before his peers.

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

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 Ford's lodge brothers, regardless of party, would close ranks around him.

Long story short: They did. Committee chairman Ron Ramsey, who doubles as the Republicans' majority leader, might have been expected to lead the charge against Ford. He did decline to accept Ford's argument that senators had liberty to offer late amendments to their financial disclosures, something Ford had just done in the wake of allegations by Schmittou.

But Ramsey seemed to speak for the body when he used the word "mistake" to describe Ford's original omission of his "consulting" arrangements for 2003 and 2004. Indeed, the committee's discussion of the matter came to focus on the simple issue of whether the word "consulting" should have appeared in the list of the senator's income sources.

"I have complied with every law," Ford said. "I missed writing one word by error. I didn't even realize it." 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 should have come cleaner on the disclosure issue but that another issue, that of the senator's alleged improper use of campaign funds, was not the committee's purview but the Registry's, nor was a third matter, that of whether Ford actually lived in his district.

The committee promised to produce a formal report in something like 14 days, and Ford offered his gratitude for a "fair" hearing. And that seemed that, until the later surfacing of a letter to members of the committee before the hearing, to which Ford had appended a warning to his colleagues not to "throw stones" in a "glass house."

The formerly compliant Ramsey responded to that sternly and indicated that the committee might ask for further information. In short, Ford might have talked himself into another jam.

Schmittou made it clear later that even if the Ethics Committee eventually washed its hands of the Ford matter, he hadn't and would be heard from again.

But regardless of that, or of further media pursuit, or of Ford's ultimate fate with the Registry or with his newly aroused colleagues, the greater danger for the Memphis state senator lay ahead, with whatever consequence ensues from a parallel F.B.I. investigation of conflict-of-interest issues relating to the senator's consulting activities.

"There's nothing for a court of law to decide," Senator Ford had insisted at Wednesday's hearing. But that remains to be seen -- as, for that matter, does the question of what new complications the senator can manage to get himself involved in.

n Hard Sell for A C: For a while, it seemed that A C Wharton might have had a harder time on Capitol Hill last week than Ford did. The Shelby County mayor had what amounted to a showdown with members of the General Assembly and got some serious back talk for his pains.

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 regular 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 -- all discussing their desired legislation.

Wharton's appearance dominated, because of his rank and because of what he insisted was the urgency of devising some means other than "the everlasting escalation of the property tax" to fill Shelby County's 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.

"If y'all come up with another bill, you'll find me marching alongside you," he said. "But this is the only horse I have right now. It may be a lame horse but it's still in the race. Other horses haven't shown up yet."

As he goaded the delegation to action on his tax measure, Wharton vowed, "I'll 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 County." If the county had to pass another property-tax increase, it would, Wharton said. But he suggested that it would be "driven by what happens or fails to happen here."

Representative John DeBerry protested: "One thing I won't accept is anybody saying this delegation is to blame," he said, turning Wharton's charge of inaction against county government itself. "Nothing is happening now that we didn't say would happen five years ago. Things got out of hand, and now we've got to hold our nose." He said, "I request and implore that his delegation be indemnified from blame."

Things lightened up a bit later on, when state senator Mark Norris offered what seemed like a deal. "We're looking for a package that can be put together," Norris said. "We need a comprehensive solution. People want a [legislative] on their taxes, but they also want a vote on their schools." Norris is a leading proponent of legislation to create a special county school district -- the "elephant in the room," as he described it Wednesday. Responded Wharton: "We've had some talks with school officials, and you'd be surprised at the room for agreement that exists."

That was the one note of harmony in a session that otherwise generated measurable tension -- the same sort that inures to most proceedings of the revenue-starved Shelby County Commission these days.

n Willingham vs. Meadows: One indication of tension to come on the commission was in the form of a letter dispatched last week by Commissioner John Willingham to Stan Meadows, lawyer for the Memphis Grizzlies. The letter, maintaining that the NBA Grizzlies have a "stranglehold" on The Pyramid and the Coliseum through the team's contract with the city and county, accuses the Grizzlies of "holding Memphis and Shelby County hostage."

Willingham, who has proposed converting the taxpayer-financed Pyramid, still unpaid-for, into a potentially profitable casino, quoted Meadows as responding to a previous communication with these words: "Frankly, John, we would like to see The Pyramid shuttered. If casino gambling were to come to Memphis, we would like to see it near the FedExForum or in the Peabody Place complex."

The commissioner, who intends to raise the issue again at commission committee hearings on Wednesday, informed Meadows, "I will do everything in my power of influence to encourage them [members of the community] to go for your Achilles heal [sic], i.e., pocketbook. My hope is that you can reconsider your position!"

n The annual Gridiron Show, the proceeds from which go to journalism scholarships, will be held Saturday, April 2, at the Al Chymia Shrine Center at 5770 Shelby Oaks Drive. A "champagne gathering" for the show, (this year entitled "Where's Willie?") is at 6:30 p.m., dinner at 7, and curtain at 7:45. Tickets, tax-deductible, are $60.

Special Senate Primary

With an expected low turnout making predictions uncertain, voters in state Senate District 33 will go to the polls Thursday to select the Democratic and Republican nominees to succeed Roscoe Dixon, now an aide to county mayor A C Wharton.

Democratic candidates are state representative Kathryn Bowers, Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks, and James Harvey. Republicans are Mary Lynn Flood, Jason Hernandez, Mary Ann McNeil, and Barry Sterling.

General election is May 10th.

Correction:Mike Ritz, a declared candidate for the county commission in 2006, was misidentified last week as "Mike Rich."

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