U.S. district judge Daniel Breen sentenced John Ford Tuesday to 66 months in prison, which means the senator, now 65, will be at least 71 when he is a free man.
Harsh as it was, things could have been worse. In fact, they could still get worse for Ford, who faces separate federal charges in Nashville and has a November 6th trial date. But Ford and his friends and family appear to have helped his cause somewhat with an emotional appeal for leniency on Monday, day one of a rare two-day sentencing hearing.
Breen said the sentencing guideline range for Ford's bribery conviction was 78 to 97 months. The judge said Ford "used and abused" his power. He was "a person of greed and avarice but also a person who assisted others." His conduct "sends a very unfortunate message to those persons who were represented by Mr. Ford," especially young people. The damning videotapes "reflect an arrogance that belies his concern for his constituents." The whole thing was "a tragedy on many levels."
Adding up all of that, and using his own judicial discretion, Breen arrived at 66 months, or slightly more than the sentence another federal judge gave Tennessee Waltz defendant Roscoe Dixon. Ford was stoic in the courtroom but appeared tearful on the elevator as he left the courthouse with his family.
John Ford was one-of-a-kind as a politician and public figure for more than 30 years, and his sentencing was no exception. It took seven hours over two days in a packed courtroom and appeared to leave Ford and members of his family emotionally drained. He gave a good account of himself and revealed a side rarely seen by reporters and most members of the public. Speaking to Breen in a soft voice that sometimes cracked, Ford asked for leniency for himself and his dependent children and said he was "ashamed" of the way he behaved on the secretly recorded tapes that convicted him.
"During the trial I was completely ashamed of myself, just completely ashamed of myself," he said of the hours of tapes on which he swore, bragged, partied, threatened to shoot people, and took cash bribes from an undercover FBI agent. A very different Ford was on display in court this week.
The two years since the Tennessee Waltz indictments were announced in 2005 "have been the most difficult of my entire life," he said, hesitating as he chose his words. "I don't know how I have been able to sustain myself."
He told Breen, "I accept the jury verdict, and I take full, total, and complete responsibility for my actions." He apologized to the court, his family and friends, his constituents, "and particularly to my children."
Thirteen friends and family members took the witness stand and described him as a good father of 12 children, a supportive brother, and a "go-to" legislator for 31 years.
If Ford's own speech was deficient in some way it was perhaps too honest. He simply could not bring himself to confess a level of remorse he clearly does not feel for a conviction based on a sting operation that, however much the government protests, likely targeted him.
"Your honor, the worst thing about me is I talk too much," Ford said. He added that his mistake was "I trusted everybody, but I should have known better. You can't trust everybody." One of the spectators in the courtroom was "L.C. McNeil," the jive-talking "businessman" who made the ten $5,000 undercover payments to Ford.
Ford said that prior to Tennessee Waltz he had never been offered a bribe and never approached anyone for a payment for his legislative services. "Never ever again will I make these kind of mistakes," he said.
That was too much for prosecutor Tim DiScenza. To the very end, he bored in on Ford as a crooked lawmaker whose only sincere regret was getting caught and convicted.
"We don't hear about the betrayed trust of the people that voted for him or the trust of the young legislators who may have looked up to him as a role model," he said.
DiScenza, who has a perfect conviction record in Tennessee Waltz, scoffed at the current and former lawmakers and public officials — Alvin King, Ulysses Jones, and Osbie Howard — who spoke on Ford's behalf and blamed his problems on big talk.
"These legislators obviously don't get it," he said.