Former state Senator and convicted felon John Ford, who finally received notification late last week that the legal probation which followed his release from federal prison in August 2012 was at an end, is free to speak freely about what’s on his mind now, and one thing very much on his mind is a belief that he is an innocent man who was “set up” by a predatory justice system determined to target Democrats.
In the course of two lengthy sit-down interviews with Ford — one last October in the living room of his condominium in a gated East Memphis suburb, another at the Ruth’s Chris Steak House restaurant in January — along with several telephone conversations, the former kingpin state Senator, now meditating on a possible electoral comeback, confided his assorted thoughts and recollections about his fall from grace and his two felony trials of the late ‘90s.
A comprehensive article on our conversations, “Waiting for Godot with John Ford,” will appear in the April issue of Memphis Magazine, and this article, a preliminary to that one, but containing a wealth of different detail, focuses more explicitly on some of the more sensitive legal matters discussed.
A key matter, of course, was the substance of the federal government’s case against Ford in the case that resulted in his conviction for bribery in Memphis in 2007 and a prison term of four-plus years, largely served in the low-security federal facility at Yazoo City, Mississippi.
"The crime was being committed on their part"
“The crime was being committed on their part,” Ford says of the FBI agents who netted Ford, along with six other officials, in the “Tennessee Waltz” sting of May 2005.
“If you tried to bribe me, you would be guilty of trying to bribe me,” Ford says, but he contends that the video, used in evidence at his trial, that shows him taking thousands of dollars in bills from an agent posing as a legislative lobbyist, allegedly to secure Ford’s help in passing a bill, was in effect edited to distort the facts.
“All they had was what they recorded on tape. You can make a video show what you want it to show,” says Ford. “Where’s the evidence? They’re the ones making a recording. There’s nothing illegal about that, about somebody counting out money and giving it to you. They give you some money and talk about something else.”
|"There’s nothing illegal about that, about somebody counting out money and giving it to you. They give you some money and talk about something else.”|
This sounds stupefyingly disingenuous, to say the least, but one is reminded of another video used in a trial, this one of veteran pol Joe Cooper offering money to then City Councilman Edmund Ford Sr., John Ford’s brother, ostensibly to guarantee Councilman Ford’s vote in a pending zoning case.
Cooper, working off a prior bust of his own by going undercover for the feds, talks about so many different things in the video — a loan here, a favor there, two or three other votes and propositions in addition to the zoning case —that the jury was unable to make any specific quid-pro-quo connections, and Edmund Ford was acquitted..
Now John Ford, who never testified in his own behalf, is arguing something similar about his own trial. “In the video, they show that when they’re talking about one thing, they give you the money because of work on something else.”
Is Ford saying that the money was passed for something other than the illegal purposes the government said it was for? “That’s exactly what I’m saying,” is Ford’s answer, but he doesn’t specify what that other purpose -- the “something else” --was.
“What bothers me is why they go after people who are not engaged in any kind of criminal activity — Ed wasn’t, I wasn’t — and then try to entrap them into a situation.
“And at the same they use somebody as a decoy “ —Ford may be indicating “Tennessee Waltz” witness and go-between Tim Willis here, as well as Cooper — “who has committed several felonies. They hold the charges, and, in the end, they don’t charge them. They say, ‘They helped us.’ To get somebody else who isn’t even engaged in a crime.”
“I think for certain they targeted Democrats"
|"I know a lot who should have been targeted who weren’t targeted. They’re still serving. They did things of their own volition, not when somebody set ‘em up.”|
It should be noted, of course, that the famous money-counting video used at Ford’s Tennessee Waltz trial — one that quickly went viral — was but one piece of evidence, including other videos and audios and numerous witness testimonies, introduced by the government at the trial.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is that Ford is stoutly maintaining his innocence, and, though he doesn’t use — at least in any of our conversations — any variant of the word “frame,” that seems to be precisely what he’s suggesting. And what would be the motive?
Ford’s answer would seem to depend on the fact that “Tennessee Waltz” and other governmental-corruption trials occurred on the watch of the Bush-era Justice Department.
“I think for certain they targeted Democrats. Who had a lot of power, Democrats in particular who were black who had a lot of power.” As for Republicans — and Democrats — who were conservative, “They didn’t bother with them. I know a lot who should have been targeted who weren’t targeted. They’re still serving. They did things of their own volition, not when somebody set ‘em up.”
Ford is bitter toward the lawyer who represented him in the “Tennessee Waltz” case, Michael Scholl, an attorney listed by the Memphis Business Quarterly as “among the best” in the field of criminal law.
John Ford would include Scholl in a list of “lawyers that ought not be practicing.” Ford insists he was not well served. “I know I wasn’t, locally. I’m so damned mad at him, all that money I spent on him. Altogether, I spent about $700,000. I haven’t spoken to him in six years.”
Among Scholl’s failures on his behalf, Ford says, was his reluctance to pursue the issue of entrapment as a defense, even though, according to Ford, presiding U.S. District Judge Daniel Breen had “given him an out” with his definition of the term.
"You come out against them, they‘ll do whatever they can."
There had been a second federal trial for Ford, one for “official corruption” that was conducted in Nashville and was based on allegations that Ford took some $800,000 from out-of-state medical and dental providers to secure TennCare contracts that he, as chairman of the Senate General Welfare, Health, and Human Resources Committee, could influence.
Ford, who insisted he had merely served as a legal consultant under the then prevailing legislative rules, was convicted in 2008 and was sentenced for an additional 14 years, but he aggressively pursued an appeal. And, as he says, “it took 33 months, we took it all the way to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. They ruled that no crime was committed, and they vacated the conviction.”
(More precisely, the Appeals Court ruled that no offense had been committed over which the federal courts had jurisdiction.)
|"They were going to fence me in. It was overkill.”|
Ford is convinced the Nashville trial had taken place only as a judicial fail-safe of sorts. “They only did that because they didn’t know what was going to happen with this other one [the Tennessee Waltz trial]. They were going to fence me in. It was overkill. They set you up and then try to overkill you on something else.”
Pending the end of his probation, Ford had been reticent about going public with his accusations against the legal system.
“I don’t know this for a fact, but it’s what I believe,” he told me. “These federal judges and cops and juries and all that, they’re a clique. They stick together. You come out against them, they‘ll do whatever they can. They say ‘Okay, he’s going to play, we’re going to keep him on that.’ If they wanted to, any little thing, any aberration, they could say that’s a violation, and it might not be.”
Further: "That’s why they have probation, to keep your butt quiet for a year or two. Boom! Everybody that goes to prison — federal, county, state, whatever level, — are not there because they committed a crime or because they’re criminals. It’s because the system wanted them there!”
“What you say can and will be held against you. What you say may not be pleasing to them, it’ll be derogatory. They’ll cop an attitude so quick. They’ll try to find something. It ain’t gotta be right. If the judge goes along with it, boom!
“I know it. I’ve seen it. .You don’t have to do anything that’s wrong to go to prison. A lot of folks who were down there where I was, we talked. They didn’t commit a crime. They hadn’t done any crime. They lost their cases like I did. They couldn’t out-gun the government. But I did in the end, though didn’t I?”
"Out-gunning the government"
There’s no doubting from all the foregoing that John Ford, who felt muzzled during the whole of his probation period, now has his muzzle off. Again, there’s more of the same — much more — in “Waiting for Godot with John Ford” in the April issue of Memphis Magazine.
One of the several additional matters dealt with in that article is that of what the former state Senator foresees as his political future from here on in. The filing deadline for state and federal offices is just around the calendar, on April 3, and it remains to be seen if a remark Ford made during our conversations has any specific relevance to that future.
I had asked Ford to verify that 9th District congressman Steve Cohen had been instrumental in getting him domiciled in the close-to-home Yazoo City facility where he had done most of his time.
Ford acknowledged that might have been the case, inasmuch as he’d taken up the matter with Randy Wade, then serving as Cohen’s district field representative.
|"You say something against a judge or a prosecutor or something like that, they can get you. They can say ‘boom boom’ and take your freedom away!"|
One of the political realities of the moment is that Cohen and Wade have parted ways, with the latter now serving as a cadre in the congressional campaign of Cohen’s declared Democratic Party primary foe, lawyer Ricky Wilkins.
And Ford made the following remark, which seemed somewhat gratuitous in the context of the conversation:
“I’m dedicated and committed to the people that elected me. A lot of the public officials are not committed to anybody but themselves. They know who they want to be: mayor, congressman, etc., but they don’t know who they are. They’re just getting all the greed and glamor out of it.
“Like when Isaac Hayes died, the first thing Cohen did was run out there and say, wouldn’t it be nice if we named this or that for Isaac Hayes? I mean, how stupid can you be? He [Cohen] already had part of the expressway named after him [Hayes] when he was in the Senate.
“He runs over there, using Isaac Hayes as a trophy so he can exhibit himself to black people. We need a black to represent us, not because we’re prejudiced, but just because we want our own to be there. Know what I’m saying?”
(This account is the tip of the iceberg. To see more about what John Ford is saying, and more about what he intends to do now, read “Waiting for Godot with John Ford,” in the April issue of Memphis Magazine).