The Appeal of John Ford 

The John Ford saga isn't over, but some friends of the former senator would probably breathe easier if it were.

Ford plans to appeal his conviction on a federal bribery charge in the Tennessee Waltz investigation. This week he was sentenced to 66 months in prison. But the FBI's undercover sting operation has withstood previous challenges and jury verdicts are seldom overturned, so Ford's appeal looks like a Hail Mary pass.

But the appeal could give Ford some leverage with federal prosecutors in Nashville, where he faces a November 6th trial date on charges related to his consulting work for Tenn-Care contractors between 2001-2005.

"If I were his defense attorney, I would be going to the U.S. attorney up there and saying, 'you all have already convicted my client and he got 66 months, so what if we dropped our appeal?'" said Hickman Ewing, former United States attorney in Memphis. "Maybe they would say that if he would plead guilty to one count they would make it concurrent to what he already got. The bottom line is how strong they think their case is. I don't know that they have got any videotapes. If they had not had videotapes here, it would have been a lot harder case."

The Nashville case is complicated by several other factors. Different federal prosecutors are in charge of the Memphis and Nashville offices. Ford's Nashville indictment came 18 months after he was indicted in Tennessee Waltz and delayed the start of his Memphis trial a few months.

On top of that, there has been a change in command in Nashville this year. The United States attorney in Nashville in 2006 was Craig Morford, who is now the number-two man in the Attorney General's office in Washington. When the indictment was announced, Morford said it revealed "an appalling willingness to violate (his) duty by using his public position for personal gain."

Whether his successors share that hunger to prosecute is not known. In a brief meeting in Nashville this week with this reporter, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eli Richardson, who is one of the prosecutors in the Nashville case along with Paul O'Brien, would only say that there is a hearing in September to discuss a motion to suppress certain evidence. He said he could not discuss the case other than to confirm the November 6th trial date -- the latest in a series postponements and reschedulings since Ford was indicted in Nashville on December 13th, 2006.

In Tennessee Waltz, Ford's "business partners" were undercover FBI agents posing as executives of E-Cycle Management. He was paid $55,000. In the Nashville case, Ford's main business partners were Tenn-Care contractors Doral Dental and Omnicare Health Plan, which was renamed UAHC Health Plan of Tennessee. Those companies, unlike E-Cycle, are very real. And Ford was paid more than $800,000 by them over a period of nearly four years.

According to the indictment, Ford owned a 40-percent interest in Managed Care Services Group (MCSG). The other owners were "Individual A" and "Individual B" in the indictment, but they have since been identified as Osbie Howard, former treasurer for the city of Memphis, and Ronald Dobbins.

Howard, former CEO of UAHC, testified as a character witness at Ford's sentencing hearing last week. Assistant U.S. attorney Tim DiScenza challenged his testimony about Ford's income and accused Howard of making a false statement to an FBI agent earlier this year about Ford's income tax return. Howard took the Fifth Amendment when DiScenza tried to question him further. Ironically, he said his current occupation is 'consultant, which means I don’t do much."

According to court documents filed in Nashville, Ford earned $470,414 in 2004 and $470,938 in 2003. The indictment says Ford formed MCSG to get payments from Doral Dental and hid that fact while working as a state senator and head of a Tenn-Care committee. According to the indictment, Ford had another relationship with UAHC to be a "consultant" for $10,000 a month. He allegedly sponsored legislation benefiting UAHC and its predecessor and met with other state officials on their behalf.

A Nashville trial could be embarrassing or worse to other Ford "consulting" clients and business associates. According to case documents, they included the Oseman Insurance Agency of Memphis, the Armstrong Allen law firm, Hospice USA, Unum Life Insurance, Connie Matthews (the mother of two of Ford's children), and former Shelby County Commission member Bridget Chisholm among others.

In summary, the Nashville case cuts to the heart of John Ford's everyday business as a consultant. If the case goes to trial, it could go a long way toward clarifying what local and state elected part-time officials who claim that their full-time occupation is “consultant” can and cannot do. If it is dismissed, consulting will continue to be a gray area.

Ford has already received what is quite possibly a political death sentence. He is 65 years old and, assuming he does not begin serving his sentence until 2008, he would be 71 or older by the time he gets out. DiScenza made a point of urging sentencing judge Daniel Breen to give Ford a long sentence so he could not stage a political comeback and commit another crime, as former Memphis City Councilman Rickey Peete did.

Ewing said one option for federal prosecutors is to move to dismiss the case, provided he cooperates regarding other people. But he did not think that federal budget considerations would weigh on that, as a front-page article in Friday's Wall Street Journal about the U.S. Justice Department suggested. Parodying a famous credit card commercial, he said, "Additional trial, $30,000. Appeal, $15,000. Getting a corrupt public official out of office, priceless."

Despite his former $470,000 a year income, Ford has pleaded indigence and is being represented by federal public defenders now. He was not fined or ordered to make restitution in the Tennessee Waltz case, although DiScenza suggested his state pension should be used to pay for the cost of his incarceration. In the Nashville case Ford is charged with getting more than $800,000, but if prosecutors don't think he has the money, that could influence their decision about whether to try him again, Ewing said.

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