Jury finds Ford guilty of all charges
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Former lawmaker John Ford was convicted Friday on public corruption charges for taking money from government contractors and lobbying for them while he served in the Tennessee Senate.
After deliberating nearly eight hours, a federal jury found the Memphis Democrat - once one of the state's most powerful lawmakers - guilty of two charges of wire fraud and four charges of making false statements on official documents.
The jury concluded after a three-week trial that Ford accepted more than $800,000 from TennCare contractors Doral Dental Services and OmniCare of Memphis while promoting their interests as a lawmaker.
The wire fraud charges each carry a maximum penalty of 20 years. The false statement charges carry a maximum penalty of five years each. Sentencing is set for Sept. 29.
Ford, 66, who did not testify, already is serving a 5½-year prison sentence for a bribery conviction in an unrelated case.
Prosecutors said the decision shows government corruption will be "vigorously" pursued. "This sends a clear message that public corruption will not be tolerated in this district," said Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rivera.
Ford's attorney, Isaiah "Skip" Gant, said he was "very disappointed" and that the defense fought hard to clear Ford, who asked if he could speak to his family after the verdict was announced.
Both sides gave closing arguments Wednesday, and the jury began deliberating Thursday morning. Prosecutors told the jury that Ford had a duty to the people of Tennessee but chose instead to serve himself. However, Ford's attorney asked jurors not to convict his client just because he may be controversial.
Ford maintained that he was paid for doing consulting work outside of Tennessee and tried to show that he traveled to other states as a consultant. The defense, however, acknowledged that Ford did advocate in the Senate on behalf of minority-owned businesses, such as OmniCare, and for poor children needing dental work.
But in building their case, prosecutors called multiple witnesses to show that Ford secretly went to bat time and again for the two companies in Tennessee.
One of the government's star witnesses was Gov. Phil Bredesen, who testified that Ford asked him to help OmniCare get 20,000 additional enrollees. The governor told the jury that had he known that Ford was being paid by OmniCare's parent company, he would have cut off the conversation and probably reported the lawmaker to authorities. Bredesen declined comment on the verdict.
Senate Democratic Caucus spokesman Mark Brown also declined comment.
A message left with Sen. Ophelia Ford, who replaced her brother in the General Assembly, was not immediately returned Friday.
Ford left the Senate in 2005 shortly after his indictment on corruption charges in an FBI investigation called "Tennessee Waltz" that landed him in prison. Extortion and bribery charges were brought against five state lawmakers in all, including Ford.
In April 2007, a federal jury convicted Ford of taking $55,000 in bribes from undercover agents pretending to seek legislative favors for a computer recycling company called E-Cycle Management. Ford is serving time in a federal prison camp in Louisiana.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said he wasn't surprised by the conviction.
"This really brings to a close what we started in 2005 with a Senate Ethics Committee investigation," said Ramsey.
He blamed his Democratic predecessor, John Wilder, for tolerating the atmosphere that led to the corruption charges against Ford and others.
"I'll never forget the day that former Lt. Gov. Wilder came to the Senate and basically chastised the FBI in a prayer," Ramsey said. "It was an attitude that maybe didn't make it happen, but didn't condemn it."
Wilder didn't immediately return a phone message seeking comment. He had been speaker for 36 years when he lost to Ramsey last year. Wilder chose not to run for his Mason district this fall.
Ford began his public career in the 1970s when he, brother Harold and other members of their large family began building what became one of the strongest political organizations in Memphis history.
In 1974, Harold Ford became Tennessee's first black congressman. That same election sent John Ford to the state Senate and brother Emmett Ford to the Tennessee House.
Harold Ford kept his congressional seat for 22 years, and when he retired in 1996, he turned it over to his son, Harold Ford Jr., who held office until 2006 when he lost a close race for the U.S. Senate.
In 1996, John Ford lost a sexual harassment suit to a former employee, who also won a court ruling that he was the father of her young daughter.
The following year, he was charged with pulling a shotgun on utility workers who had parked their truck near his driveway. Ford was ordered to perform community service and stay out of trouble for two years.
In 2001, the senator's wife was charged with ramming her Jaguar into his girlfriend's residence, a $385,000 house owned by Ford.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)