Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Big Dance

How John Ford's Tennessee Waltz trial could differ from Roscoe Dixon's.

Posted By on Thu, Apr 12, 2007 at 4:00 AM

The government showed its Tennessee Waltz playbook in the Roscoe Dixon trial last year, but prosecutors face a few more obstacles as they try to convict John Ford.

The X-factors include Ford himself, his attorney Michael Scholl, bagman Barry Myers, controversial U.S. attorney general Alberto Gonzales, and the Justice Department's public corruption prosecutors in Nashville, who have Ford under a separate indictment.

In many ways, of course, the trials will be more alike than different. Prosecutor Tim DiScenza will play obscenity-laced audio and videotapes of Ford wheeling and dealing with an undercover FBI agent pretending to be an executive of E-Cycle Management. The payoff picture will be shown from different angles. Jurors will hear how the phony company was created and the role played by informant Tim Willis. Willis and the FBI agents who pretended to be free-spending E-Cycle executives will testify.

But Ford is an iconic name in Memphis politics, and he was a genuine leader in the Tennessee Senate. Dixon, on the other hand, was a plodder and secondary figure even in the estimation of his friends. He bumbled through an appearance on the witness stand, and his lame alibi and inconsistencies made him easy prey for DiScenza. The shrewdness that made Ford a self-described consultant with a high-six-figure income could also make him a formidable defendant, whether or not he chooses to testify. His reputation as a big talker given to outrageous overstatements might actually help him fight the three counts of his indictment that accuse him of threatening Willis.

Scholl has the benefit of learning from the trials of Dixon and Calvin Williams, a former Shelby County employee who was also convicted. Dixon's attorney, Coleman Garrett, opened with the entrapment defense. Dixon went off in another direction when he took the witness stand. Based on pretrial motions, Scholl will apparently argue that Ford considered the money he got from E-Cycle to be a legitimate consulting fee.

The key witness against Dixon was Myers, described as being "like a son" and "protégé" to the senator. Myers, who did not begin cooperating with the FBI until the Tennessee Waltz indictments became public, was the bagman for Dixon and others. On secretly recorded tapes with E-Cycle bigshots, Myers calls Ford "the big juice" and one of the "heavy hitters" in the legislature. But Myers was not as close to Ford as he was to Dixon. As far as we know, Myers was not Ford's bagman. Nor is some other bagman waiting in the wings to testify against Ford. It appears that Ford did his own collections.

In the year since Dixon went to trial, the political climate has changed. The Justice Department has taken a pounding from Democrats, who now control Congress, and some Republicans. Last month, it came to light that Gonzales was involved in the firing of eight federal prosecutors, including Bud Cummins of Little Rock. A Republican, Cummins said he resented the misstatements about the firings more than the dismissal itself and believes the Justice Department has lost credibility.

Gonzales is due to testify before the U.S. Senate next week, if he survives that long. Ford jurors will be instructed not to read or watch news during the trial, but Scholl may have an opportunity to suggest that Ford was politically targeted as a Democrat.

Dixon jurors were introduced to the concept of "predication" or predisposition to commit a crime. "You can't go out trolling for public officials, can you?" DiScenza asked an FBI agent, who explained that Tennessee Waltz began as an investigation of Shelby County Juvenile Court. Jurors heard tapes of Dixon and Myers discussing bribes for helping a dental clinic (for which Dixon was not indicted) to show he was predicated.

In the minds of many Memphians, John Ford was predicated by being John Ford — a fast driver and big talker with marriage problems and expensive tastes. But that won't cut it in court. Prosecutors will have to be careful not to trip over their own colleagues in Nashville.

In 2006, Ford was indicted in Nashville in connection with his "consulting" payments from companies doing business with the TennCare program. The indictment pushed Ford's trial date back to April to allow Scholl to review hundreds more documents. Nashville prosecutors will only say that their case will follow sequentially the Memphis Ford trial.

(Check for regular trial updates.)

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