Politics and Justice

John Ford's trial looms as Justice Department is scrutinized.



How long do you think it will take the national media to follow the strands of the fired federal prosecutors story to Tennessee? I'd say about two weeks, at most.

On April 9th, former state senator John Ford goes on trial in federal court in Memphis. He's a big fish in his own right and he's the uncle of Harold Ford Jr., who is a celebrity, and the brother of Harold Ford Sr., who had his own federal trials in 1990 and 1993. The second trial, which resulted in Ford's acquittal, was marked by exactly the sort of political meddling in the Justice Department that is now being exposed in the Bush administration.

There are so many good angles it's hard to cram them all in, but here goes.

Don Sundquist's name could come up in the John Ford trial because the powerful senator from Shelby County was a go-to guy from 1994 to 2002, when Sundquist was governor. Ford has a May 22nd trial date in Nashville on charges related to consulting.

But there's much more. When he was a congressman in 1991, Sundquist recommended that Hickman Ewing Jr. be replaced by Ed Bryant as U.S. attorney for Western Tennessee. Ewing and his assistants were on the trail of Harold Ford Sr., who confronted Ewing in an elevator in the federal building in 1989 and told him, "You are a pitiful excuse for a U.S. attorney, but I can guarantee you that you won't be the U.S. attorney much longer."

Like the eight fired prosecutors who are now in the news, Ewing was replaced in mid-term. Ewing, Sundquist, and Bryant are Republicans, while Ford is a Democrat. In 1993, Bill Clinton was the newly elected president, and when Democrats in the Justice Department tried to influence jury selection in the second Ford trial, the government's two trial attorneys resigned, albeit for only a day. So did Bryant, who was going to be replaced anyway along with 92 other U.S. attorneys as part of the new administration.

Sundquist, of course, went on to become governor. In his second term, when Tennessee Waltz was still just a song, federal prosecutors began an investigation of fraudulent state contracts. One close friend of Sundquist, John Stamps, was sentenced to two years in prison in 2005. Another Sundquist friend, Al Ganier, was indicted on federal obstruction charges in 2004. Three years later, he doesn't even have a trial date. But in a court order in 2005, U.S. district judge Karl Forester wrote that Sundquist was "the impetus" for the federal investigation and said prosecutors had evidence that Sundquist "improperly interceded" on Ganier's behalf.

Sundquist has not been charged and has said he is confident he is not under investigation. If the phrase "improperly interceded" rings a bell, that's what has Joseph Lee on the hot seat over at MLGW in connection with another Ford, brother Edmund.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors in Memphis and Nashville who were there at the start of the political corruption investigations have moved on. In Memphis, Terry Harris took a job with FedEx. In Nashville, Jim Vines resigned in 2006, and first assistant Zach Fardon left in January.

Will Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resign? He apparently lied about what he knew about the firings and when he knew it. Lying can be criminal. It was one of the factors that got Roscoe Dixon such a harsh prison sentence, and it's one of the charges against Michael Hooks Jr., scheduled to go to trial later this year.

The bumbling of the Justice Department has been criticized by, among others, Bud Cummins, former U.S. attorney in Arkansas, who was fired last year to make room for a pal of Karl Rove and then smeared by his old bosses. Two years ago, Cummins, a Republican, staunchly defended Gonzales and President Bush.

If Republican prosecutors are upset, how do you suppose Democratic pols feel about being seven times as likely as Republicans to be indicted? A suggested opening argument in the John Ford trial: "Ladies and gentlemen, in the 1996 presidential election, Memphis delivered Tennessee, whose electoral votes clinched it for Clinton/Gore. The Republicans and Karl Rove never got over it, and Mr. Ford is the victim of a political vendetta by a Justice Department whose leadership lies."

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