What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happened in Miami in 2004 during three days and nights of partying involving John Ford, an undercover FBI agent, and their dates was courtroom fodder this week in Ford's corruption trial.
Ford's girlfriend, Mina Nicole Knox, 26, took the witness stand for nearly two hours as the defense closed out its case in short order. Ford did not testify, and the defense presented only three witnesses, including Knox, attorney Allan Wade, and Ford's friend William Watson.
At Flyer press time, prosecutors were undecided whether to call a rebuttal witness. Otherwise, U.S. district judge Daniel Breen said the two sides would make closing arguments Tuesday afternoon and the case could go to the jury after that. The trial is in its third week.
Knox, who described her relationship with Ford as "personal," is a petite former model and professional cheerleader and aspiring actress. She answered questions in a sweet, perky voice as defense attorney Michael Scholl and assistant prosecutor Lorraine Craig asked her about details of her weekend with Ford, Tim Willis, and undercover agent L.C. McNeil in Miami in July 2004. The weekend included a party aboard the now famous E-Cycle yacht, which was in fact an FBI prop, where undercover FBI agents smoked cigars, had drinks, and danced salsa with Knox and several of her male and female friends, including Ford.
Under questioning by Scholl, Knox told jurors that McNeil spent the night with one of her girlfriends in a hotel room and a second night with another woman from their party. McNeil testified last week that in his undercover role he "mirrored" Ford's party style, but he insisted there was no sexual relationship, drug use, or anything "inappropriate" in his role-playing. In real life, McNeil is an ordained minister and specialist in undercover operations who said "it is a challenge to separate the two" lives he leads.
The weekend in Miami is important because it marked the beginning of the buddy-buddy relationship between Ford and McNeil and established the terms by which McNeil would pay Ford $55,000 in what the government says were bribes over the next nine months. Scholl spent more than three days cross-examining McNeil, who made all the payments and recorded them.
When it came his turn to present witnesses, however, Scholl elected to make it short and sweet. Wade, who represents developer Rusty Hyneman, said he never saw Hyneman give Ford an expensive Rolex watch and that Ford did not really save Hyneman any money on a state environmental matter, as Ford boasts on a secret tape. The other witness, a clothing designer who has known Ford for 20 years, also testified about the Rolex.
Then it was Knox's turn. She said the purpose of the trip to Miami was to attend a black film festival. She did not recall hearing anything about E-Cycle Management. The defense contends Ford was targeted by the FBI and entrapped.
Prosecutors changed tactics by having Craig, instead of assistant U.S. attorney Tim DiScenza, handle the cross-examination. She asked Knox why three versions of the weekend in Miami that she wrote differed in detail, especially about McNeil's implied romantic involvement. Knox said the first account was written hastily and in broad terms. Her final account of the weekend was written earlier this month just before the trial began. Craig suggested Ford might have coached Knox, but she denied having any help.
Jurors appeared to be listening intently to Knox, in sharp contrast to previous days in which witness testimony dragged on and was often interrupted by private conversations between the judge and lawyers. The courtroom was also unusually crowded with Ford supporters.
After Knox testified, there was a bench conference, after which Breen announced that the proof was complete unless the government decided during the lunch break to produce a rebuttal witness.
The anti-climactic end of the testimony left spectators and reporters guessing about the outcome and offering their opinions about the high and low points of the trial. With Ford declining to take the stand, the role of star witness must fall to either McNeil or undercover informant Tim Willis.
McNeil got the most face time, and the tapes of his payoffs to Ford were devastating, but for my money the trial's most dramatic testimony came from Willis when he recounted his visit to Ford's office in February 2005.
Willis was nervous, very nervous.
He had just gotten a call from Ford asking him to come to Ford's office in downtown Memphis.
The call was short. Ford wanted to talk about one of Willis' clients. Since Willis had only one client — E-Cycle Management — he could imagine what Ford was going to ask him: Are you working for the FBI?
Say what you will about Willis, he kept Operation Tennessee Waltz alive for three more months until the unveiling of the indictments on May 26, 2005. His commentary from the witness stand on the tape in which Ford threatens to shoot him was the signature moment in the trial.
The meeting at Ford's office was Willis' finest hour as an undercover informant. He outfoxed the fox in his own office, nervously shifting a miniature hidden recording device from one pocket to another while making up stories to counter each of Ford's probes and keeping his nerve when Ford threatened to shoot him if he found out he was being betrayed.
At the time, Tennessee Waltz had been running for 15 months. Ford had been under suspicion since at least April 19, 2004, and had taken $40,000 in payments from an undercover FBI agent. Ford's Memphis office was on the second floor of a small building on Third Street, with no easy access or interior observation points for FBI agents. Willis was on his own.
"I had a funny feeling about the call," he testified.
So he called FBI agents Brian Burns and Mark Jackson, who told him to go ahead and to take a recorder with him.
After they talked awhile, Ford got down to business. How well did Willis know L.C. McNeil, the E-Cycle executive who had been paying Ford? What kind of contract did Willis have with E-Cycle? Was it for two years or three years? Where else did the company do business besides Tennessee?
"I'm just trying to figure out why they need a bill," said Ford.
Then the big question: "Are they legit, man?"
Ford said Roscoe Dixon and two other unidentified people had warned him to be careful. Unknown to Ford, Dixon, hired a month earlier by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton as an administrative assistant, had been secretly taped for more than a year and had already been caught taking bribes from Willis. But Willis did not pay any bribes to Ford and testified that he didn't even know Ford had been bribed when he went to his office that day.
To each question, Willis made up an answer. E-Cycle, he suggested, was a shell company for a get-rich-quick stock scheme. McNeil and his partner Joe Carson "hated each other," and McNeil might be trying to sabotage the deal. McNeil grew up on the rough side of Chicago and might have been a drug dealer as a kid.
Ford wasn't satisfied. The FBI has a lot of shell companies too, he countered.
"Let me ask you," he said to Willis. "You ain't workin' for none of them motherfuckers?"
Ford whispered that he had a gun and said he would use it. Willis, as he had done several times before, broke into nervous laughter.
"He said he would shoot me dead and go tell my wife that I ran off with another woman," he testified.
Ford was on the right trail but was missing enough pieces that Willis was able to talk his way out of the jam. The truth was worse than Ford suspected. McNeil was an FBI agent and instructor in undercover operations.
"The feds ain't cut no deal with you?" Ford asked Willis, who had worked in his campaign in 2002.
In fact, that is exactly what they had done. Willis nervously shifted the recorder around in his pockets, sending static through the audiotape played for the jury.
As Willis was leaving, Ford threatened him again, telling him that if he was working for the FBI, "you gonna die right now." He touched Willis on his shirt — Willis described it as a pat down — to see if he was wired, and Willis lifted up his shirt. As Willis walked down the stairs, Ford said, "It will not ever come back what you and I said."
Little did he know that Willis would make it all come back. For the next three months, he never met with Ford again without an FBI agent in the room.
"We almost shut down the operation because of the threat," Jackson testified.
Since he began cooperating with the government in 2003, Willis has been paid approximately $215,000. But on that day in February 2005 in Ford's office, Willis was worth every dollar the government paid him.
The government "can't just go trolling for public officials, can they?"
The answer is "absolutely not." FBI agent Brian Burns said that from the witness stand in John Ford's trial in response to a question from defense attorney Michael Scholl, just like he said it from the witness stand in Roscoe Dixon's trial last year in response to a question from assistant U.S. attorney Tim Discenza.
So when the FBI and federal prosecutors set up Operation Tennessee Waltz to root out "systemic corruption" in state government in 2003, they did not target John Ford. And when Captain Quint and Matt Hooper and Chief Brody set out in that fishing boat and started chumming the waters in Jaws, they were not looking for a big shark.
Seven days into the Ford trial, the case for entrapment is as murky as the case for bribery is clear. Jurors have seen and heard tapes of 10 payoffs to Ford, totaling $55,000, in 2004 and 2005. Each one is made in the context of conversations about Ford helping undercover FBI agents posing as business executives get special legislation for E-Cycle Management. Undercover agent L.C. McNeil counts out stacks of $100 bills and passes them across a desk to Ford, who often puts them in his pocket without bothering with an envelope. Some of the videos are shot from multiple angles and are as clear and carefully analyzed as NFL football replays, with McNeil, à la Boomer Esiason, circling the money with a red marker on his computer screen.
"I can walk into a room and get more done than 10 motherfuckers," Ford says on one tape in a typical example of the former senator's bravado and ratiocination. Obscenity may be edited out of family newspapers but not federal trials.
The prosecution's biggest problem is probably also Ford's best hope: showing that it caught Ford without setting him up. In the current news climate, with the Justice Department and U.S. attorney general Alberto Gonzales under fire for the firing of eight federal prosecutors, possibly for political reasons, establishing that Tennessee Waltz was nonpartisan is especially important.
Here's an overview of the trial as of Tuesday, April 17th:
Who's on the stand? Undercover FBI agent L.C. McNeil (not his real name) has been on the stand for most of four days. He was Ford's running buddy in 2004-2005 and taped hundreds of hours of conversations. He is the government's key witness because he actually made the payoffs to John Ford in a way that, in hindsight, seems like a dead giveaway to an undercover sting.
"I don't target anyone," McNeil said in response to a question from Discenza. "My focus is to go out and conduct a fair and balanced investigation."
In two days of cross-examination, Scholl has done everything but shout "liar liar pants on fire" in numerous efforts to get McNeil to depict acting as lying.
Who is L.C. McNeil? The short answer is undercover specialist who looks like he could kick anyone in the courtroom's ass. The long answer is more complicated. In real life, he is 39 years old, African-American, 6'1", 220 pounds, a former Los Angeles policeman, a graduate of Oral Roberts with a theology degree, and a former full-time minister who was still ministering last year. For some reason, the government got McNeil to divulge most of that information in the Dixon trial but only gave the Ford jury an abbreviated resume and let Scholl flesh out the details.
In his fake identity, McNeil was the single father of a son in Chicago, a music producer and investor in lucrative stock offerings, and a world traveler. On the tapes, he and Ford are partying, talking about women in language that would get a budding Don Imus in trouble, and going to sports events. But McNeil is not nearly as foul-mouthed as Ford. He calls Ford "cat" and "doctor" and almost always ends his phone conversations with "Peace."
Does he ever slip up? It's hard to say, but there seems to have been a close call or two. McNeil always refers to his fellow undercover FBI agent Joe Carroll (alias Joe Carson) as simply "Joe." Inevitably, Ford says something like "who?" And McNeil says, "My partner." But he never uses his full name, which is perhaps too easy to confuse with his real name. And his fake career in music and movies, by coincidence or design, put him in Los Angeles and New York at the same time that one of Ford's daughters was trying to break into the business there. He even says he will contact her, but apparently he never did. Nor did Ford check him out, which might have blown the cover.
Was John Ford targeted? At some point, he obviously was, but when and how are key issues in the trial. The FBI and prosecutors had to comply with guidelines for undercover operations and get approvals from higher-ups in Washington. Given the notoriety and history of the Ford family, it seems likely that Gonzales or his predecessor were in the loop, but that has not come out in court.
The jury must decide whether Ford was "predicated" or predisposed to take a bribe or entrapped by overzealous FBI agents. That's the reason why so much has been made of an April 2004 dinner at Morton's Steak House in Nashville when Ford and McNeil met for the first time. Kathryn Bowers, who definitely was an early Tennessee Waltz target, arranged the dinner and E-Cycle paid for it.
"I got a brother on City Council and another brother on County Commission and I control the votes in both places," Ford says. But he was not an eager player. In his cross-examination of McNeil, Scholl played a tape on which Ford said he was too busy to help.
"It takes five months of my time, and I just don't have time to do it," he says.
The next day, McNeil and Tim Willis, his undercover informant, visit Ford at his Nashville office in the legislative plaza. Ford wants to talk more about the music business, but McNeil wants to talk about E-Cycle.
"Do you think we're in good position to do some things?" he asks.
Three months later, Ford travels to Miami to meet Willis and McNeil, supposedly for a black film festival. He gets a tour of E-Cycle's yacht and an earful of Willis blabbing interminably on his cell phone at lunch one day. Scholl's tapes, in contrast to the government's tapes, present Ford as quiet and mainly interested in the music business and women.
The man who came to dinner: The government wants to start the Ford story at the dinner at Morton's. Ford came to the dinner, apparently without a personal invitation. Other legislators did not. Bowers, like Ford, is a black Democrat from Memphis. The road through Bowers and Dixon, another early target, would logically lead to Ford.
Ford's self-assessment as political godfather was not shared by everyone. In tapes played at Dixon's trial, Dixon says to E-Cycle executives that "we're all leaders in the Senate." And Bowers says, "The Senate didn't have no leaders." Also, Barry Myers, a Dixon understudy who testified against him at trial, says on tape that the powerful Sidney Chism-Willie Herenton Democrats "don't give a fuck" about the Fords.
What are the risks of the entrapment defense? It's a chess game, and prosecutors can counter with evidence such as the Rolex watch gift from developer Rusty Hyneman to Ford to bolster their predication argument. It is still early in the trial, and Discenza likely has more witnesses and more evidence that he might not have been able to put before the jury without the entrapment defense. There has already been testimony that Ford was involved in three previous FBI investigations.
Could the bribes be construed as legitimate? The intent is as clear as the video quality. McNeil always brings the conversation around to E-Cycle legislation so there is little, if any, chance of the payment being depicted as a legitimate consulting fee. Ford, of course, drives home the nature of the payments by playing the part of the dutiful legislator in the early tapes and, in the later tapes, threatening anyone who rats him out.
So, it's a slam-dunk case? Never. That's for the jury to decide.
Where's Tim Willis? In the wings. The government will have to put him on the stand to talk about the witness-intimidation charge against Ford. He will take his standard beating from the defense (this will be the third trial in which he has testified) and will be questioned sharply about his moviemaking, which could suggest that he saw the whole thing as a sort of "Tim's Excellent Adventure" project to advance his career.
Deleted scenes: Like the dozen or so reporters in the courtroom each day, the defense and prosecution are each trying to create a storyline for an audience by selectively choosing quotations, characters, and incidents. Scholl has effectively changed the plotline for now, but his points are sometimes hard to decipher. Discenza works faster and always has his witnesses repeat what he considers to be key statements.
The government showed its Tennessee Waltz playbook in the Roscoe Dixon trial last year, but prosecutors face a few more obstacles as they try to convict John Ford.
The X-factors include Ford himself, his attorney Michael Scholl, bagman Barry Myers, controversial U.S. attorney general Alberto Gonzales, and the Justice Department's public corruption prosecutors in Nashville, who have Ford under a separate indictment.
In many ways, of course, the trials will be more alike than different. Prosecutor Tim DiScenza will play obscenity-laced audio and videotapes of Ford wheeling and dealing with an undercover FBI agent pretending to be an executive of E-Cycle Management. The payoff picture will be shown from different angles. Jurors will hear how the phony company was created and the role played by informant Tim Willis. Willis and the FBI agents who pretended to be free-spending E-Cycle executives will testify.
But Ford is an iconic name in Memphis politics, and he was a genuine leader in the Tennessee Senate. Dixon, on the other hand, was a plodder and secondary figure even in the estimation of his friends. He bumbled through an appearance on the witness stand, and his lame alibi and inconsistencies made him easy prey for DiScenza. The shrewdness that made Ford a self-described consultant with a high-six-figure income could also make him a formidable defendant, whether or not he chooses to testify. His reputation as a big talker given to outrageous overstatements might actually help him fight the three counts of his indictment that accuse him of threatening Willis.
Scholl has the benefit of learning from the trials of Dixon and Calvin Williams, a former Shelby County employee who was also convicted. Dixon's attorney, Coleman Garrett, opened with the entrapment defense. Dixon went off in another direction when he took the witness stand. Based on pretrial motions, Scholl will apparently argue that Ford considered the money he got from E-Cycle to be a legitimate consulting fee.
The key witness against Dixon was Myers, described as being "like a son" and "protégé" to the senator. Myers, who did not begin cooperating with the FBI until the Tennessee Waltz indictments became public, was the bagman for Dixon and others. On secretly recorded tapes with E-Cycle bigshots, Myers calls Ford "the big juice" and one of the "heavy hitters" in the legislature. But Myers was not as close to Ford as he was to Dixon. As far as we know, Myers was not Ford's bagman. Nor is some other bagman waiting in the wings to testify against Ford. It appears that Ford did his own collections.
In the year since Dixon went to trial, the political climate has changed. The Justice Department has taken a pounding from Democrats, who now control Congress, and some Republicans. Last month, it came to light that Gonzales was involved in the firing of eight federal prosecutors, including Bud Cummins of Little Rock. A Republican, Cummins said he resented the misstatements about the firings more than the dismissal itself and believes the Justice Department has lost credibility.
Gonzales is due to testify before the U.S. Senate next week, if he survives that long. Ford jurors will be instructed not to read or watch news during the trial, but Scholl may have an opportunity to suggest that Ford was politically targeted as a Democrat.
Dixon jurors were introduced to the concept of "predication" or predisposition to commit a crime. "You can't go out trolling for public officials, can you?" DiScenza asked an FBI agent, who explained that Tennessee Waltz began as an investigation of Shelby County Juvenile Court. Jurors heard tapes of Dixon and Myers discussing bribes for helping a dental clinic (for which Dixon was not indicted) to show he was predicated.
In the minds of many Memphians, John Ford was predicated by being John Ford — a fast driver and big talker with marriage problems and expensive tastes. But that won't cut it in court. Prosecutors will have to be careful not to trip over their own colleagues in Nashville.
In 2006, Ford was indicted in Nashville in connection with his "consulting" payments from companies doing business with the TennCare program. The indictment pushed Ford's trial date back to April to allow Scholl to review hundreds more documents. Nashville prosecutors will only say that their case will follow sequentially the Memphis Ford trial.
(Check www.memphisflyer.com for regular trial updates.)
A visionary is someone with a healthy ego and big ideas who agrees with you.
In its never-ending efforts to better itself, Memphis has engaged at least a half-dozen consultants in the last few years to tell us what to do with our parks, downtown, Shelby Farms, waterfront, and bike paths. Whether any of them are visionaries depends on where you happen to be standing.
Want to tell Memphis what you think? Get in line. Recent visitors and their sponsors include city expert Ken Jackson (Urban Land Institute), park experts Alexander Garvin (Shelby Farms) and Charles Jordan (Friends for Our Riverfront), and waterfront experts Cooper, Robertson & Partners (Riverfront Development Corporation, or RDC).
Last week it was Fred Kent's turn to take a whack at the waterfront. A New Yorker most of his adult life (he organized Earth Day in 1970 when John Lindsay was mayor), Kent's Project for Public Spaces has turned Placemaking with a capital "P" into a brand of sorts. Sixty-something, easy-going, and casually dressed, Kent and his son Ethan, who is in the family business, log something like 150,000 miles a year compiling lists of places good and bad. Their big idea is that big ideas for city improvements are often wrong, especially if they're architectural monuments. The Kents think a lot of little ideas from a lot of "stake-holders" usually produces a better result. They call it the "power of 10," as in 10 destinations that each have 10 things to do
Not surprisingly, Fred Kent is no fan of The Pyramid or the proposed $27 million Beale Street Landing with its floating pods in the Mississippi River at Tom Lee Park.
"That will be one of the great design disasters that will haunt you for 20 years before you have the guts to take it out," he predicted. "And The Pyramid -- what a bad symbol for a city. I would tear it down. The only question is, will you do it 10 years from now or next year."
The Kents came to Memphis at the invitation of Friends for Our Riverfront and Memphis Heritage to tape a television interview and run one of their patented Placemaking workshops for about 140 people last Saturday. We split up into groups and headed via the trolley to seven downtown destinations, pencils and report cards in hand. It was Saturday morning, and the rain hadn't blown in yet. The COGIC funeral and the ballgame at AutoZone Park were far enough away that they didn't interfere. The downtown parks looked like they usually do -- generally well kept but lightly used except for the Kemet Jubilee parade that was winding down at Tom Lee Park.
"You guys are going to come up with all these amazing ideas," Kent said.
Well, maybe. At the cobblestones, my assigned destination, I trekked along the sidewalk on Riverside Drive and down the steps, averting a thrown-away sanitary napkin. I crossed the stones that group leader Susan Caldwell told us were once used to balance the loads in riverboats. A few cars were parked near the tour boats, and two powerboats and a kayak glided through the brown water of the harbor.
"It's not attractive to the eye," said Sybil McCrackin, from the Kemet parade.
That was the consensus of our group, too, when we summarized our scribbling at lunch. Short-term suggestions were to remove the utility poles, put in historic markers, eliminate parking, add a patch of grass, and put public art on the long gray wall beneath the sidewalk. Long-term ideas included a floating restaurant, Wi-Fi, paddleboats, and concession stands. As RDC president Benny Lendermon told me later, however, a floating restaurant failed several years ago, MudIsland is experimenting with boat rentals, and the Landmarks Commission objected to painting the wall.
"We wanted all of that," said Lendermon, who also played the game and met for an hour or so with the Kents. Beale Street Landing, the RDC's signature project, is still a go, but the underground parking garage has been scrapped.
There was much similarity to the seven groups' suggestions (seewww.friendsforourriverfront.org) -- vendors, bathrooms, and street performers, which made me wish Flyer columnist Tim Sampson (All Mimes Must Die!) had been there. No one pledged the first $1,000, but the total bill wouldn't have approached $27 million.