Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Day Tim Willis Earned His Money

Posted By on Wed, Apr 18, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Tim Willis was nervous, very nervous.

It was February 3rd, 2005, and he had just gotten a call from senator John Ford asking him to come to Ford's office in downtown Memphis.

The call was short. Ford wanted to talk about one of Willis's 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?

Midway through a week in which Ford's defense attorney Michael Scholl should have been charged with attempted mass narcolepsy in the courtroom, Willis told a riveting tale that brought the trial back to life. Questioned by prosecutor Tim Discenza, Willis took the stand and did commentary on one of the most dramatic audiotapes in the whole Tennessee Waltz investigation.

The meeting at Ford's office was possibly Willis's finest hour as an undercover informant. He outfoxed the fox, bullshitted the champion bullshitter in his own office, and kept Operation Tennessee Waltz alive for nearly three more months. Relying on his wits as he nervously shifted a miniature tape recorder from one pocket to another, he made up stories to counter each of Ford's probes and kept his nerve when Ford threatened to shoot him if he found out he was being betrayed.

Ford's 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 the FBI, but they told him to go ahead, and to take a recorder with him.

After they talked a while, Ford got down to business. How well did Willis know L.C. McNeil, the E-Cycle executive who had been stringing Ford along for months and had already paid him nearly $50,000 in bribes. What kind of contract did Willis have with E-Cycle, 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 people had warned him to be careful. Unknown to Ford, Dixon, hired a month earlier by his pal Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, had been secretly taped for more than a year and had already been caught taking bribes although the FBI had not sprung the trap. Willis himself had paid the bribes to Dixon.

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, Willis suggested.

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 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. Ford thought McNeil might be a convicted felon working as an undercover informant, but apparently did not suspect that the truth was even worse. McNeil was an FBI agent and instructor in undercover operations. And Ford, whose campaign Willis had worked in in 2002, knew Willis well, had him dead to rights in fact.

"The feds ain't cut no deal with you?" he asked.

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 prepared to leave, Ford threatened him again, telling him that if he was working for the FBI "you gonna die right now."

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, who to date has been paid something like $215,000 by the FBI, would make it all come back. His testimony offered some opportunities for Scholl on future cross-examination, such as his claim that he had no idea Ford was a target when he agreed to help the FBI. But on the stand Wednesday, and on that day in February of 2005 in Ford's office, he was worth every dollar the government paid him.

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