POLITICS: Jaking It 

Rep. Ford tells nominee Cohen face to face that he won’t endorse him.

District congressional nominee Steve Cohen, who has grappled with a variety of health and family issues since his victory in the August 3rd Democratic primary, has some political ones as well.

Cohen happened to bump into his party's U.S. Senate nominee, Harold Ford Jr., at a Midtown hostelry last week. And, oh yes, during the three minutes or so that the two men of the hour had for a brief but cordial (or, in diplomatic parlance, "correct") conversation, the question of the hour came up.

The longtime state senator from Midtown had the opportunity to ask the outgoing 9th District congressman directly: Will you endorse me?

Ford's answer: "I can support you, but I won't endorse you." (If that sounds ever so much like John Kerry's famous equivocation about an Iraq spending measure, "I voted for it before I voted against it," you have to remember that Ford was an early supporter - a national co-chairman, in fact - of the Massachusetts senator's late presidential campaign.)

The congressman then went on to explain what Cohen, and everybody else, already knew: He had a brother in the race - whom he apparently wouldn't be endorsing, either.

It will be remembered that days before, during his post-primary statewide bus tour, the barnstorming Ford had been quoted in the Nashville Tennessean as saying he was a Democrat who supported Democrats - and, as Ford explained, both Cohen and Jake Ford, the congressman's brother, who is in the congressional race as an independent, were Democrats.

That was that, and to Cohen, as to the Tennessean earlier, Ford coupled his reservation about the congressional race with a profession of loyalty -- or "love," as Ford put it to Cohen -- for Connecticut U.S. senator Joe Lieberman, who, having lost his primary race to party insurgent Ned Lamont, is now running as an independent as he continues to seek reelection.

In statewide political circles, Rep. Ford's position regarding the two races has generally been seen as a dilemma. It is, of course, equally possible to construe each of those races as providing the congressman cover for dealing (or not dealing) with the other.

Meanwhile, speculation as to the import of all this has become a cottage industry among political observers. Some emphasize the value of the congressman's coattails to his brother Jake; others suggest that continued irresolution on Rep. Ford's part could snag his coattails in such a way as to damage Democratic unity and the prospects for his own victory.

As of now, the congressman is running well - with his campaign trumpeting a new poll showing him with a two-point lead over Republican senatorial nominee Bob Corker,

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*Item #2: The aforesaid Jake Ford, whose congressional campaign remained merely conceptual until the Democratic primary was finished, now looks more and more like the real thing. He was seen last week loading up a pickup truck with yard signs. The signs - accented in black, white, and blue and featuring the candidate's name along with an image of the U.S. Capitol - shortly began sprouting in south and southeast Memphis.

There is also now a "Jake Ford for Congress" Web site - barebones for now but featuring several category heads that will presumably be filled in later.

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*Item #3: The last week has also seen the first stirrings of an organized effort on Jake Ford's behalf among a few traditional Democrats in the African-American community.

One such is William Larsha, a sometime local columnist and veteran member of the Shelby County Democratic executive committee, who this week published two brief essays on the blog of Thaddeus Matthews arguing that Jake Ford should be supported by blacks in order to preserve an African-American congressional seat for Tennessee.

The influence within the party of Larsha, approaching 80 and with no particular affiliation with any of the Democrats' local factions, is marginal. But in the absence so far of major black defections to independent Ford, he becomes the equivalent of the proverbial flag that's run up a pole to see who might salute it.

TRYING TIMES: Wearing a gray pin-striped suit, a businesslike striped tie, and - ultimately - a look of anguish, Michael Hooks Sr., whose resignation as Shelby County commissioner had taken effect at 12:01 a.m., formally pleaded guilty Monday in federal court to accepting $24,000 in bribes during the course of the FBI's Tennessee Waltz sting.

"An error in judgment affects a lifetime," a visibly contrite Hooks said to reporters afterward. 'I have nobody to blame but me. I don't blame the sting operation, I don't blame the set-up, I blame Commissioner Hooks. And for that, I will pay for it the rest of my life."  

Hours later, state Senator Kathryn Bowers, another Tennessee Waltz indictee, postponed her own day of reckoning by seeking and receiving a delay until September 5th as a time for a "final report" in which she will state her plea. Her attorney, William Massey, would later suggest, somewhat meaningfully, that a trial might not be necessary.

Presiding in the cases of both Hooks and Bowers is U.S. District Judge John D. Breen, who earlier had approved a plea agreement between Hooks and the U.S. Attorney's office, and set December 6th as a sentencing date.

In his brief statement to reporters, Hooks went on to say that he took "sole responsibility" for actions, committed in 2004 and 2005, that resulted in his taking a total of $24,000 in FBI cash from individuals working under cover and posing as representatives of a fictitious computer-disposal firm known as E-Cycle Management. "I knew better and should have done better," Hooks said. He said his family had been affected by the scandal and he was ready to accept "any judgment that's handed down."

Announcing the terms of Hooks' plea agreement in court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim DiScenza had briefly recounted the series of incidents, all documented by audio- and video-taped evidence, in which Hooks had asked for and accepted cash to help repair a personal "deficit" of $38,000. Asked by Judge Breen if DiScenza's narration had been accurate, Hooks replied, "Basically."

Attorney Steve Farese appeared on Hooks' behalf, along with lawyer Marc Garber from Atlanta. At one point while DiScenza was outlining the events incriminating Hooks, Farese put a supportive hand on Hooks' back.

Farese would tell reporters later that the government's allegations, followed by an indictment of Hooks as part of the Tennessee Waltz sting, had "killed his [Hooks'] soul." He said that he and Garber had carefully screened the evidence and later reviewed it with Hooks. "I sat down for three straight days with Michael, and after I let him see transcripts and let him see recordings, he knew at that time that a trial was simply out of the question," Farese said.

Neither Hooks nor his two lawyers gave any indication as to whether Hooks might become a principal in subsequent trials of others indicted in the Tennessee Waltz. One of these is his son, Michael Hooks Jr., charged with similar actions while a member of the Memphis school board.

After the announcement in court of the guilty plea by the senior Hooks, U.S. Attorney David Kustoff issued a statement in which he said in part: ""Violation of the public trust by government officials defies the confidence that citizens expect from their representatives.  The public should have the confidence that their government is not for sale. Moreover, elected officials should understand that they are held to the same standard of the law as everyone else."

In the afternoon hearing for Bowers, attorney Massey successfully sought a continuance for his client on grounds that, with the completion of discovery (the final receipt of relevant evidence, including audio- and video-tapes from the government), Bowers' team needed time to digest everything.

Asking by reporters if Bowers might consider a plea other than Not Guilty, Massey said, "We're always re-evaluating our position, in light of everyone else, in light of the discovery we've had."

Though she seemed chipper, especially in comparison with the clearly depressed Hooks, Bowers acknowledged to reporters that "this overall ordeal has really taken a serious toll on my health."

Question: If Bowers - on the basis of the kind of well-documented evidence that convicted former state Senator Roscoe Dixon -- also ends up having to cop a plea, can former state Senator John Ford, considered the biggest fish snared in the FBI's net, possibly avoid doing the same?


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