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Courtroom Round-Up

Politicians buy time, a wedding planner cops a plea, and Logan Young -- one year later.



As she awaits a ruling from U.S. District Court judge Bernice Donald, Ophelia Ford has emerged from obscurity to become a fixture on local television and a household name in Memphis and, to a lesser extent, across Tennessee. Not an easy thing for a late-starter like Ford, who is 55 years old. And not a bad thing in politics, where name recognition is vital. She went from Ford family also-ran (in 1999 she was disqualified for a Memphis City Council election because her qualifying petition did not have 25 valid signatures) to political celebrity in six months, thanks to a 13-vote special election victory in which the turnout was 6 percent.

Had Ford won the election going away last September, she would have merely been one of 33 senators and 132 members of the Tennessee General Assembly. Instead she has been on television and in newspapers almost daily for more than a month. Newspapers in Jackson and Chattanooga have editorialized about her and called for a new election. Whether or not Ford retains her Senate seat after the current election controversy ends, her fame and political future are assured.

n It will be at least two more months before any of the Memphis political corruption cases comes to trial. On January 27th, a federal judge gave Calvin Williams two more months to prepare for his next court appearance. Williams, the former chief administrator for the Shelby County Commission, was indicted on federal charges last year. Assistant U.S. attorney Tim Discenza told the judge the case is "complex" with "a lot of proof," and the trial is expected to last five days. Williams declined to do an interview but said his long-awaited book about his experiences in county government is coming out "after this is over."

The next scheduled court appearance for a defendant in the Tennessee Waltz cases is Michael Hooks' appearance on March 20th. Former Senator Roscoe Dixon got a 90-day extension in January when he changed attorneys. John Ford's case is expected to be the headliner in the group and will probably come last.

n Call it "Not Facing History and Ourselves." It is always interesting to see how official government publications handle government scandals. The 2005-2006 edition of the Tennessee Blue Book came out last week. In it you will find lots of information about state history, symbols, honors, songs, and the hobbies, professional affiliations, and vanities of 132 legislators but nothing about Operation Tennessee Waltz.

Ex-senators John Ford and Roscoe Dixon are pictured along with notes in fine print which say they resigned in 2005 for reasons that are not specified. Both were indicted in the Tennessee Waltz along with Senator Kathryn Bowers, whose occupation is listed as "contractor consultant," and Senator Ward Crutchfield of Chattanooga, whose biography includes a full page of honors dating back to 1985 but nothing about his recent notoriety.

Controversy has no place in the Blue Book, unless it happened during or before the civil rights era of the 1960s. Former Governor Ray Blanton's biography says nothing about his prison term or his forced removal from office in 1979. The whitewashed history of state government refers to "questionable acts" by the Blanton administration. A government that can't distinguish between questionable acts and illegal acts is a government that will be hard pressed to deal with ethics reform.

n Accused bogus wedding planner Rafat Mawlawi was in federal court last week for a change of plea hearing. Mawlawi, who has been jailed since April because the government considers him a flight risk and a possible terrorist sympathizer, pleaded guilty to four counts of immigration violation and one weapons charge during a one-hour hearing. He was returned to prison until his sentencing hearing April 27th.

Assistant U.S. attorney Fred Godwin, who is prosecuting the case, made no mention of the terrorism angle during the hearing. Videos, photographs, passports, and more than $30,000 in cash, which the government considered suspicious, were seized when federal agents with the Joint Terrorism Task Force searched Mawlawi's home near Craigmont High School on April 4, 2005.

Godwin did provide one new detail about the case. An alert customs agent at Detroit Metro Airport identified both Mawlawi and codefendant Tamela Bracey as possible immigration violators in separate searches in May 2003 and tied the two together. Mawlawi and another codefendant, Janet Netters Austin, recruited others to engage in sham marriages or engagements with Middle Eastern men to help them enter the United States. Before he was arrested, Mawlawi worked as a part-time interpreter for the immigration office in the federal building in Memphis.

n One year after his celebrated trial and conviction in federal court, University of Alabama football booster Logan Young Jr. remains free pending appeal. His attorneys have asked the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to move the appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court because they believe it is an issue of state law rather than federal law. Young received a six-month sentence for his conviction for paying $120,000 to high school coach Lynn Lang in the Albert Means recruiting case.

n Headline in last week's Detroit News: "Milder weather cuts heating bills." The story explained how a mild Michigan winter and lower rates for natural gas -- down as much as 21 percent at some Michigan utility companies -- are reducing heating bills by 25 to 30 percent. Headline in last month's Nashville Tennessean: "Natural gas bills to shrink as utility cuts rates again." Nashville Gas customers get a 36 percent reduction effective February 1st, on top of another reduction in January. Memphis Light, Gas and Water has offered no such relief from gas bills up 70 percent or more. Any consumer savings are the result of lower usage due to January temperatures in the 50s.

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