The resounding - and continuing - shocks of last Thursday, when several well-known political figures were arrested in a corruption scandal, handcuffed, and hauled into federal court, both in Memphis and Nashville, were preceded by some ironies that might have been edited out of a work of fiction as being too pat and fanciful.
In the preceding week, state senator John Ford, under siege for months because of suspected ethics violations, had let it be known that he intended to counterattack against his persecutors, filing lawsuits against anybody challenging his integrity. Only the day before, in the legislature's other body, state representative Chris Newton of Newport rose to withdraw a bill governing the disposal of surplus state computers. It seemed that Newton had discovered that a lobbyist for the measure, Hamilton County school-board member Charles Love, was not registered with the state as an official representative of E-Cycle Management, the firm pushing for the new law.
Consequently, Newton had told the Chattanooga Times-Free Press he decided to yank the bill. "From just purely an old-fashioned ethical standpoint, that's wrong," said the Cleveland Republican. "To me, it creates a cloud over that process. It doesn't look good. ... It just left a bad taste in my mouth."
That bad taste must have gotten far worse early on Thursday morning, when Newton himself was hauled into custody by FBI agents in Nashville, along with Ford and state senators Kathryn Bowers of Memphis and Ward Crutchfield of Chattanooga. Undergoing simultaneous arrest in Memphis were former state senator Roscoe Dixon, who had become a ranking aide to Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, and Dixon's longtime aide Barry Myers. Love, who had filed for bankruptcy on Wednesday, was still at-large but was arrested later in Chattanooga.
Nor was that the end of it. As in the aftermath of any high-end Richter-scale event, the aftershocks kept coming. Rumors, abetted by politicians and legal figures in a position to know, kept floating to the effect that other big names, both statewide and in Shelby County, had been involved in the sting. This was reflected not only in the Internet's hyperactive blogosphere - coming into its own during this crisis in the same way that TV had established itself decades ago - but in mainstream news sources as well. Some of the speculation was manifestly over the top - like the reports coming out of Nashville that Memphis mayor Willie Herenton might have something to worry about. That notion turned out to be based on a misunderstanding about Dixon's place of employment. The mayor he worked for was, of course, not Herenton but county mayor Wharton, who was not only uninvolved himself but lost no time in asking for - and receiving - Dixon's resignation. In a Thursday-morning press conference at the Memphis federal building, U.S. attorney Terrell Harris summed up the thrust of what he and the four other law-enforcement figures on hand had to say about the arrests: "Government is not for sale." Taking turns, the officials - including, besides Harris, My Harrison and Joe Clark of the FBI; Mark Gwyn, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation; and Tim DiScenza, assistant U.S. attorney - outlined what amounted to a conspiracy.
All seven of the arrested individuals, it was explained, had been indicted by a federal grand jury for a variety of improper actions, mostly involving taking payoffs to push for legislation intended to benefit a dummy electronics firm set up by the federal authorities. All this was documented in a press release and copies of the multi-count indictment, which spoke to illegal payments received by all of the arrestees from E-Cycle Management, which was established by the FBI and operated - at considerable expense, later court hearings were to document - for the last two years.
The most prominent of the officials caught in the sting - code-named Tennessee Waltz by participating agents - was Senator Ford, whom this year's multiple investigations had turned into a virtual household name in Tennessee and elsewhere. The Memphis senator was reported to have extorted the largest amount of money - $55,000 - and was also charged with three counts of "attempting to threaten and intimidate potential witnesses," an offense that itself carried a maximum potential punishment of 10 years and maximum fine of $250,000.
Ford, who exudes a self-assertiveness that enemies call "arrogance" and friends dismiss as well-intentioned bluster, was a chastened figure when he appeared, handcuffed, in federal court on Friday morning, along with Dixon and Myers. Dixon offered a friendly nod to one or two people in the courtroom, presided over by U.S. magistrate judge S. Thomas Anderson. The result of that hearing left Ford still in custody, pending a detention hearing the next day, while Dixon and Myers were released on their own recognizance. A subdued and rueful-looking Dixon talked to the media afterward, promising what proved to be a short-lived open-door policy toward the media. The lesser-known Myers managed to make his exit virtually undetected.
Most attention was, of course, focused on Ford, whose temperamental outbursts, highly publicized womanizing, and previous brushes with the law had made him a cynosure over the years. The hearing Friday morning before another federal magistrate judge, Diane Vescovo, fanned the flames further, as prosecutors played video- and audiotapes in the courtroom in which Ford was not only depicted receiving $10,000 in large bills from an undercover agent but also venting suspicions of being set up and threatening to shoot both an FBI undercover agent and an agency informant.
"John's harmless," said Ford's longtime civil attorney, Marty Grusin, and, in the end, Vescovo granted the wishes of Ford's new criminal counsel, Mike Scholl, and agreed to released him on $20,000 bond, along with a series of Martha Stewart-like restrictions, including electronic monitoring, house arrest, and confinement to the Western District of Tennessee unless called to Nashville as part of the ongoing (but now overshadowed) ethics investigations going on there.
The government asked for - and got - a rehearing this week on the detention matter. Ford on Friday afternoon was able to appear in court sans handcuffs, flashing a thumbs-up greeting to members of his extended family who filled up several rows of the courtroom. There was some specula
tion as to which of his several residences he would choose to be confined to. It turned out to be his Collierville address.
On Tuesday, U.S. district judge Daniel Breen ruled Ford can remain free on bond. Ford's attorney presented 12 character witnesses, about half of whom spoke on his behalf. Ford must comply with a 6 p.m. curfew, avoid contact with witnesses, and remain home except for church, court, and work appearances.
The drama continued to escalate, however. As the members of a stunned General Assembly tried to recover from their shock and hastened to finish the legislature's business before Memorial Day, Lt. Governor John Wilder opened the final Saturday session of the Senate by reading aloud to newly shocked members this note from Ford:
"Dear Governor Wilder," the note said. "I hereby resign from the state Senate. I plan to spend the rest of my time with my family clearing my name." State senator Ron Ramsey of Blountville, chairman of the Senate's Ethics Committee, promptly announced that his committee had been set to call a special hearing on June 9th for the purpose of expelling Ford. That will no longer be necessary. Citizen Ford's main task now, besides staying out of jail and compensating for the income lost during the course of this year's events, is the aforesaid one of clearing his name.
Meanwhile, news reports made it obvious that other well-known names in local politics and government might be in jeopardy. Both Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks and Memphis School Board president Wanda Halbert acknowledged that they had been contacted by representatives of the bogus E-Cycle firm - though Halbert made it clear she had expressed no interest in a proposal on behalf of the company. There were conjectures that city officials as well had been courted by E-Cycle. After the unprecedentedly intense few days that preceded it, the current workweek began with an attitude in government, political, and media circles that could best be described as: Ready for Anything. n
Tale of the Tapes
In its effort to continue detention of former state senator John Ford without bond, the government last week presented video and audiotapes of Ford in conversation with principals in the Tennessee Waltz sting that resulted in Ford's arrest, along with six other individuals, including three from Memphis. Complete transcripts of all three conversations are available on the Flyer Web site (MemphisFlyer.com). Here are the relevant portions.
I. CONVERSATION OF AUGUST 19, 2004: State senator John Ford (JF) and undercover FBI agent (UC) known to him as "L.C." Based on videotape.
This conversation, early on in the Tennessee Waltz sting, establishes the nature of the operation. Ford is asked by the undercover agent to assist in passage of a bill to facilitate the purchase and resale of state-owned computer equipment. In the course of the conversation, the senator receives a "down payment" of $10,000.
UC: (counting money) Three, four (sound of money being counted). Girl [bank teller] looked at me like, you goin' shoppin'? I said, yeah, you wanna' go with me? (laughs)(pause). She looked at me like "this yo' money?"
JF: Where at the bank? Yeah. Yeah, when you get ...
JF: Five hundred dollars ...
UC: Yeah, I think my name is on, on the account there. That's twenty-five.
JF: I ain't try to count, I trust you.
(money still being counted)
JF: I'm gonna' (unintelligible).
(money still being counted)
UC: Get another five. Ah, 'cause I am goin' shoppin'. I may need some extra here.
JF: In Memphis?
UC: Yeah, I'm gon' go, I, I got this girl I'm gon' go out with, hang out with her. You know I, you taught me well. I know you gotta' spend a little somethin' on 'em from time to time.
JF: What, you got a girl here?
UC: Yeah. (money still being counted)
UC: Yeah, you should have, ah, you should have 10 there.
UC: Ah, and, ah, you need a envelope, want a envelope 'cause I don't really need this envelope.
JF: Naw, I won't be needin' it.
II. CONVERSATION OF FEBRUARY 3, 2005: State senator John Ford (JF) and FBI informant Tim Willis (CW). Based on audiotape.
This conversation begins with Ford venting his growing suspicions that he's being set up. It ends with the senator having issued a clear, unambiguous warning.
JF: Well, just tell me about L.C. Ah, is he legit or, or, or what? He don't walk around with video cameras in the office or guns on 'im or anything like that?
CW: Not, not that I know of. I mean, hell, he ain't shown me nothin' like that. I mean, he got me one ...
JF: Well, he wouldn't show it to ya' now Goddamn it, he, he wouldn't be stupid.
JF: Well, let me ask you a question. You ain't workin' for none of the motherfuckers?
CW: (laughs) Naw. (laughs)
JF: If you are, just tell me. I got a gun. I'll just shoot you dead.
CW: (laughs) Uh-uh.
JF: And go over here and tell you wife, well, he, he (unintelligible) got shot.
CW: Well, man, hum, ain't got me a just a little ole ...
JF: Naw, I'm, I'm, I'm just raisin' questions, you know, just that when somebody, ah, ah, tell me somethin', ah, you know I, I just can't (unintelligible). I don't blow things over. They were sayin' well, just watch yourself. Be careful (unintelligible) ...
III. CONVERSATION OF APRIL 8, 2005: State senator John Ford and undercover FBI operative "L.C." (UC) Based on audiotape.
Caught in the Web
A blogger breaks the Tennessee Waltz story.
The first report on the Tennessee Waltz arrests didn't come from the mainstream press but from the personal weblog of state representative Stacy Campfield. Just before 7 a.m. on Thursday, May 26th, the day of the busts, he posted, "News Flash: 1 senator and 1 rep were supposedly taken away in cuffs. It is not who you think. More later." Half an hour later he updated his original post to score some political points, saying, "Rumor has it Crutchfield, Bowers, Ford, and Newton [were arrested] supposedly about a computer recycle bill. It is the one I think I spoke against when it came to committee." Campfield may also be the source for the false but often-repeated rumor that Memphis mayor Willie Herenton was somehow involved in the sting when at 7:36 a.m. the computer-savvy rep mistakenly identified Roscoe Dixon as a Herenton aide, prompting others in both the blogosphere and the traditional media to jump to some pretty juicy - but apparently unjustified - conclusions. Campfield's posting represents the best and the worst of the new online medium and its impact on mainstream news sources. Blogging puts the heat under traditional media as stories can break on the blogs before the cameras roll or the ink dries. But in a breaking-news (live blogging) scenario, access and fact-checking are real problems, and in the onslaught of words, misinformation can quickly spread. Even Roger Abramson, blogging for The Nashville Scene, connected Herenton to Dixon and ran with the ill-informed rumor. Though Abramson quickly corrected his mistake, the mill was already grinding. In Memphis, Mike Hollihan of Half-Bakered, a site dedicated primarily to his version of conservative politics and to scrutiny of the Memphis media, followed the story closely, providing up-to-the-minute commentary for computer-bound workers who might not have access to a television or radio. Hollihan, a libertarian who generally lends his support to Republicans, also made with some fair and balanced meta-blogging after Bill Giannini, chairman of Shelby County Republicans, rushed out an e-mail critical of John Ford, Kathryn Bowers, and other Shelby County Democrats caught in the FBI's web. "What a load," Hollihan wrote. "Why didn't they mention the other legislators? Was it because one of them, Chris Newton, is a Republican? Is it because he has nothing to do with Shelby County? Please." In a wrap-up of the blogosphere's Tennessee Waltz coverage, the Scene's Abramson concluded that, while Internet reporters and commentators have the advantage of speed and flexibility, traditional news sources were far better at separating rumor from fact. Of course, breaking coverage has never been what bloggers do best. The most significant stories to emerge from the Internet have resulted from a careful (or sometimes not so careful) dissection of ongoing stories. How Tennessee blogs responded to the breaking news isn't particularly interesting. How bloggers use their resources to take the Tennessee Waltz story apart and put it back together will determine the worth of the Volunteer State's volunteer journalists. n
The Flyer's Davis, whose personal blog, the Flypaper Theory (ThePeskyFly.blogspot.com) is not referenced here, omits to mention his own contribution to the developing Tennessee Waltz story - most notable in his early documentation of the Web site established by the FBI dummy corporation involved in the sting.
This conversation, the third of four between these two individuals to be mentioned in court last week, was the last one recorded. In it, Ford is clearly on his guard about the legislation he's been asked to handle, hinting at further threats but agreeing to continue the relationship and to "roll" the bill until next year's session.
UC: Just what I, this is who I want you to see if you open for Johnny. Tell me what you think about that. You think it's a problem, let me know, but what I'd like to see happen, and I think we all could benefit from it, is roll this thing. I can make some money. Joe'll make some money till next year. If you want me to, I'll put you on what I've kept you on over the last, you know ... JF: Let me, let me say this right over here. I don't mind doin' that. I'll do what you want me to do, just ditto that, don't have to talk about (unintelligible) do that.
JF: But I just want to make certain, 'cause he's okay, and that you're okay, 'cause I don't need nobody come back and say Blah, Blah.
UC: John, I can under - what you need? You want another?
JF: Yeah, I'll take another one.
JF: (unintelligible) I don't mind shootin' that motherfucker, but I don't want to shoot you.UC: (laughs) John, you ain't got to shoot nobody.
JF: I don't mind shootin' (unintelligible).
UC: You ain't got to shoot nobody, okay? ...