BY JACKSON BAKER | APR 19, 2007
Tim Willis, the star government witness who came off as a fast and agile thinker in a vintage recording played in court Wednesday, fared differently Thursday morning during a cross-examination by former state senator John Ford's defense attorney, Mike Scholl. Willis, who played an undercover role in the FBI's Tennessee Waltz investigation, professed to have trouble remembering dates and the details of his financial compensation. He may also have contradicted prior testimony in which he denied having helped the FBI target Ford.
In a crucial surveillance tape played by Scholl just before the court broke for lunch, Willis, who had been asked by the FBI to attend Senator Ford's birthday party in May , 2004 was heard to tell Bureau operative Joe Carroll, "I'm gonna see if I can get Ford to be our man." At that point, Ford had not yet been enticed into doing legislative favors for E-Cycle, the phantom computer-recycling firm set up by the FBI.
Moreover, Willis, who acknowledges having worked to recruit other Tennessee Waltz suspects, has testified that he was never involved in Ford's case - though a February 2005 tape in which he resourcefully fended off suspicions and threats from Ford concerning E-Cycle's role in general was the piece de resistance of Wednesday afternoon's court session.
When asked about the "our man" statement by Scholl, Willis contended that a portion of the recording marked "unintelligible" on the transcript would have shown that he meant that Ford would be helpful in arranging access for the undercover agents to that year's ongoing Bar-B-Q Fest.
Another possible contradiction was offered by Scholl in the form of a Nashville Post interview granted by Willis in connection with "Street Life," a private movie project. In the interview, Willis apparently told the writer that the E-Cycle sting, aimed at state legislators and other public officials, was "my brainchild." In his previous testimony, Willis had said he had no role in the preparation of the operation.
Yet another difficult moment for the witness had come earlier when Scholl repeatedly pressed him about the acknowledged fact that Willis had smoked marijuana with one of the officials who was the target of the sting. "To keep my cover," Willis kept responding, he had smoked marijuana with the official.
For a while, too, it seemed that Willis was professing to have no memory of being paid by the FBI during 2003, a period before the advent of E-Cycle when he was making recordings for the Bureau and, as government figures showed was paid a total of $34,000. Willis later attempted to clarify that his lengthy series of "I don't remember" responses to questions about the payments referred only to a faulty memory concerning the amount of the payments.Further evidence undermining Willis' credibility was presented during afternoon interrogation, when recordings were heard in which he appeared in early 2005 to have been conferring with agent L.C McNeil toward the end of enticing Ford to an E-Cycle conclave in Miami.
Beyond a day's worth of embarrassment and possible legal repercussions for Willis, the courtroom disclosures also may have significantly hurt ther prosecution's case or that part of it aimed at shoring up the fact of of Ford's "predicaton."
Predication, proof of which is indispensable in stings like the FB I's Tennessee Waltz operation, means the demonstration of a predisposition to the kind of crime being investigated. Since Judge Daniel Breen is permitting an entrapment defense, the government's case is potentially injured by anything that compromises its account of how Ford was induced to cooperate with E-Cycle.