Thursday, June 5, 2008

After the Rainmaker

No one can accuse federal prosecutors of Ford fatigue.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 5, 2008 at 4:00 AM

In the long-running epic series The United States v. The Fords of Memphis, John Ford is about to reclaim the starring role.

In May 2005, the feds indicted then-senator Ford in Operation Tennessee Waltz. Coincidentally, it was a few days after Harold Ford Jr.'s announcement of his candidacy for U.S. Senate.

In December 2006, federal prosecutors in Nashville indicted John Ford a second time on charges related to his consulting for TennCare contractors. That same month in Memphis, the feds indicted John's younger brother Edmund, then a Memphis city councilman, on bribery charges stemming from a zoning case.

In 2007, John Ford went to trial and was convicted and sentenced to 66 months in prison. Also in 2007, Edmund Ford was indicted a second time for bribery along with former MLGW president and chief executive officer Joseph Lee.

In 2008, Edmund Ford was tried and acquitted on the charges connected to the zoning case. He still faces trial on the MLGW-related charges.

All this, of course, followed the mistrial and retrial of Harold Ford Sr., culminating in his acquittal in 1993.

It looks like the spotlight is about to shift once again to John Ford and the city of Nashville, scene of Ford's legislative prowess for more than 20 years. On June 24th, Ford, now a prison inmate in Leitchfield, Kentucky, is scheduled to go on trial again.

"I will be ready, but I won't be ready if [prosecutors] dump hundreds of documents on me at the last minute," said Ford's attorney, federal public defender Isaiah S. Gant, who says he has been trying to get the government's prospective exhibits for several months. "I haven't gotten one sheet of paper since February."

A status hearing before a judge is set for June 9th. Assistant U.S. attorney Eli Richardson, head of the public corruption office in Nashville, said he expects the case to begin June 24th. When and if the case goes to trial, Ford will be moved to a facility in Nashville and come to court in civilian clothes. Prospective jurors are likely to be questioned about their knowledge of Ford's Memphis conviction, although that might not come up in the actual trial.

"Generally speaking, that would not come in unless he took the witness stand," Gant said.

Former federal prosecutor Hickman Ewing Jr. said if Ford takes the stand he can be asked if he has been convicted of a felony even though his conviction is on appeal.

Ford isn't the only one who's already been punished. His consulting partners, Doral Dental and United American Health Care (parent company of a Tennessee subsidiary called Omnicare), have both lost their TennCare contracts with the state Department of Finance and Administration. UAHC, a publicly traded company, made the disclosure in a quarterly filing last month.

"Management believes the discontinuance of the TennCare contract will have a material impact on the company's operations," the company said.

As UAHC's rainmaker, Ford was paid more than $400,000. Most of Omnicare's 100,185 enrollees came from Shelby County and West Tennessee. They are expected to transfer to other managed-care organizations this year. UAHC got 60 percent of its total revenue from the TennCare contract. Its stock price has fallen from $9 in early 2007 to $1.76 this week.

TennCare, Omnicare, United American Health Care ... who cares? Why go forward with a second John Ford trial? Because, unlike Tennessee Waltz, which was based on an FBI sting operation and a fictional company called E-Cycle Management, the TennCare case involves real companies. A conviction would send a clear message to companies and politicians alike about the legality as well as the ethics of consulting, which has had its practitioners on the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission, as well as in the General Assembly, where Ford and others openly listed it as their occupation.

In announcing the Nashville indictment, then assistant U.S. attorney Craig Morford said it showed Ford's "appalling willingness" to betray the public trust. Morford has since moved on to the attorney general's office in Washington.

The upcoming Ford trial comes at a time when a change in administration in Washington is certain and a power shift from Republicans to Democrats is a fair bet. Politically appointed assistant United States attorneys customarily start sending out their resumes now. After this year, they won't have John Ford to kick around any more.

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