Tuesday, August 30, 2005

POLITICS

Staff-driven or not, Ford blunder on Parole Board letter becomes a potential issue.

Posted By on Tue, Aug 30, 2005 at 4:00 AM

IMPERFECT STORM

Whether or not some oversight by a staff person was responsible for the ill-fated letter to the state Parole Board on behalf of convicted murderer Phillip Michael Britt — sent out over 9th District U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. ’s signature and later disavowed by the congressman — anyone who has logged any time at all in a congressional office is aware that most mail is staff-written and signed either by auto-pen or by staffers emulating the boss’s signature.

The greater part of such correspondence is in response to somewhat standard requests for information or assistance or for an elaboration of the congressman’s or senator’s views on this or that topic of the day. And the sheer volume of incoming mail means that most inquiries are met with form letters.

For whatever reason, Britt’s appeal to Ford must have found itself in a pile of such mail destined for routine treatment and was not, as it clearly should have been, directed to Ford for a discretionary response by the congressman himself. The odds for such a mischance occurring were no doubt increased by a stepped-up travel schedule on the part of Ford, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate. It is difficult to believe that the congressman, who is nothing if not cautious in his rhetoric (often elaborately so), would have knowingly written a letter of even qualified support for Britt, who was a principal in the brutal and notorious murder-for-hire of Memphian Debbie Groseclose in 1977.

Whatever the case, it was a Class A boo-boo — and though Ford has manfully taken responsibility for the error (enduring in the process a severe reaming-out over the air by local radio talk-show host Mike Fleming), it has already impacted his Senate race, overshadowing his endorsement by the state AFL-CIO earlier in the week that the story broke.

Sooner or later, somebody on the Ford staff will have some serious ‘splaining to do. Most likely, that moment of truth has already occurred — and not, one would assume, to the offending staffer’s gratification. Expectations governing work in the congressman’s office, as previously in that of his father and predecessor, a zealot for constituent service, are exacting, even by congressional standards.

Simultaneous with the Parole Board flap, but presumably unrelated to it, Rep. Ford has been breaking in a new press secretary, Corinne Ciocia, who succeeded Zac Wright early in August. Wright had returned to his Tennessee home, it was said, as the consequence of back problems and other assorted physical complaints.

Thus did the revolving staff door swing again in the Ford congressional office.

Wright’s immediate predecessor, the short-lived Carson Chandler, was reportedly fired in late 2004 for divulging to Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication for insiders, that the congressman was a frequent weekend visitor to Florida. Disclosed the periodical on November 22 of last year: “Ford’s press secretary says the Congressman goes to Miami often to visit his father, former Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), and his brother.”

That sort of candor, which clashed somewhat with the stereotyped notion of dutiful back-and-forthing to the district, was bad enough. But what apparently cut it with the congressman were two further revelations in the Roll Call story — one that began this way: “Ford was chilling poolside recently at the schwanky [sic] Delano hotel in Miami. He wore a bathing suit and Washington Redskins baseball cap, puffed on a stogie, and sipped a fruity frozen drink….,” and another that dished on the congressman’s alleged penchant for pricey pedicures.

Although Chandler was specifically ruled out as the source for the latter item, his name was all over the rest of the column, and the effect of the whole was to get him shown the exit.

During his tenure, which lasted a tad longer than six months, Wright committed no such gaffes. He churned out press releases and doggedly monitored Ford’s press availabilities so as to exclude potentially embarrassing or unfriendly questions. But the wear and tear of his high-pressure job began to show on Wright — or so it seemed to some who remembered him from his prior service as chief press aide to the state Democratic Party — and his departure was not altogether a surprise.

For the record, the hard-working Wright’s last press release on Ford’s behalf, dispatched on July 27, was entitled “Ford Stands Up for America’s Future.”

Frist-Lott (cont’d) : As fate would have it, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississipppi was due in Memphis this week for a book-signing, one week after an appearance here by his partner/nemesis/successor Bill Frist, subject of a decidedly unfriendly reference in the newly published memoir by Lott, Herding Cats. [UPDATE: Lott, stranded in his home town of Pascagoula, Mississippi, was prevented from coming when his flight to Memphis was cancelled due to Hurricane Katrina.]

In the book, the Mississippian accuses former protege Frist of “betrayal” for taking advantage of Lott’s impolitic praise of centenarian Strom Thurmond in late 2002 in order to take over as Majority Leader. As noted here last week, Frist had told the Flyer as far back as 1998 that he intended at some point to make a bid for the job.

After a luncheon appearance before the downtown Rotary Club at the Convention Center last Tuesday, the Tennessee senator was asked about what Lott had written.

"I’ve not read the comments, I’ve not read the book,” Frist answered, then did his best to pour honey on the wound. “I have tremendous respect for Trent Lott. I’ve worked with him very closely. I have lunch with him two days a week. He helped me on the energy bill. He helped move America forward on the highway bill, on the recent CAFTA bill. I look forward to working with him constructively. And that’s pretty much where it sits. I know that it was very difficult in the past when he, uh, sat down, and I respect his interpretation of the events that led to that. I’m really looking to the future and to my continued close work with a man who I respect tremendously, Trent Lott, who’s served the people of Mississippi in a very positive and constructive way."

And what about the resolution of the filibuster battle some months back, which was ended in a compromise solution proposed by his likely presidential rival, Senator John McCain? Did he regard this alternative as a defeat for his own hard-line position?

Frist was determined to be upbeat about this, too: "You know, being the elected majority leader of the United States Senate means you do certain things, and I have led on principle. I have led on the basis that I say I’m going to do something, and then I go ahead and do it. I feel strongly on behalf of that principle that nominees deserve and up or down vote. It is our responsibility to treat these nominees with respect, all these nominees, and with advice and consent, and in doing that, I stood on principle to give them an up or down vote.

“Other people felt that not all candidates deserve an up or down vote, and I, you know, respect that, but I don’t agree with it. In terms of was I successful or not, in standing on principle, six nominees who were filibustered in the last Congress by the other side of the aisle, who thought that they had no chance in the future, because of my standing on principle are now sitting federal judges serving the American people."|

Hurricane Kurita: The field of would-be successors to Frist, who will vacate his seat next year to prepare an expected bid for president, includes Rep. Ford, a Democrat, and three Republicans — former congressmen Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary and former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker. It also includes another Democrat, state Senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, who continues to hang in there with an innovative advertising campaign on Web sites and blogs, despite some staff losses and slowdowns in her more conventional fundraising.

Kurita, who has gained adherents among Democrats who consider Ford too ambiguously conservative, will blow into town this weekend. Her several local appearances include one before the Germantown Democratic Club at the Germantown library on Saturday morning.

New Dance Moves

Since former state senator John Ford has indicated he still intends to plead not guilty of extortion and bribery in the Tennessee Waltz scandal (and to demonstrate in the process that his government accusers were in fact the Bad Guys), it was probably inevitable that one of his fellow indictees should work things in exactly the opposite direction.

When state representative Chris Newton of Cleveland came to Memphis Tuesday morning to change his not-guilty plea to guilty in federal court, he did his best not only to present himself as an innocent in the general, not the legal, sense of the term but almost as a de facto member of the prosecution. (If he turns out to provide state’s evidence in cases against others, that could turn out for real.) While praising Newton (who resigned his legislative seat last week) as having been “forthright,” however, assistant U.S. attorney Tim DiScenza indicated Tuesday that no plea bargaining had been pursued in the case.

First, Newton responded to Judge Jon McCalla’s lengthy reading of the indictment with a highly qualified plea of guilty, alleging straight-facedly that he had intended only to accept a campaign contribution but conceding that he accepted money from the bogus FBI-established eCycle firm “at least in part” to influence the course of legislation.

Talking to members of the media later, Newton lavishly praised both the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office and proclaimed that “the process of rebuilding public trust in our institutions of government, especially the Tennessee General Assembly … begins here with me today.” Though Newton has now copped to being a felon, he was within a few dollars and a few procedures of actually being legal. DiScenza alluded in court Tuesday to a scandal within the scandal — the fact that lobbyist/co-defendant Charles Love of Chattanooga, one of the “bagmen” in the case, had admitted skimming most of the eCycle money intended for Newton. Of the $4,500 routed his way, Newton only got $1,500 — just $500 more than the legal limit for a contribution.

Asked by a reporter how he felt about being skimmed, Newton beamed good-naturedly and pantomimed his answer: “You’re bad!”

Newton’s change of plea follows that of Love’s fellow bagman Barry Myers and puts pressure on the other accused — besides Ford, state senators Kathryn Bowers and Ward Crutchfield and former state senator Roscoe Dixon — to follow suit. This dance could be over before it really gets started good.

UPDATES: HOOKS AND BROOKS

Hooks Indicted: Shelby County Commission chairman Michael Hooks Sr., long under a cloud after his name surfaced in connection with the first “Tennesse Waltz” revelations, was formally charged Tuesday by the Shelby County grand jury with taking $24,000 in bribes from the FBI’s sham “eCycle” electronics firm.

Hooks, who had acknowledged having some involvement with the firm when the news of the FBI sting broke in May, turned himself in at the federal building Tuesday after releasing this statement to his fellow commissioners: “You will undoubtedly hear in the media today news of my indictment. I want to apologize to you for any cloud this issue may put over the County Commission and staff. I ask for your prayers.''

The indictment charges Hooks with receiving money from eCycle in several installments, beginning in September of last year and continuing through March of this year, months during which he was preparing and launching what proved to be an unsuccessful bid for a state Senate seat – ironically, one that had been vacated by fellow indictee Roscoe Dixon and that was ultimately won by another indictee, Kathryn Bowers.

Hooks will make a formal plea regarding the charge on September 7 – the anniversary of the first sums received by him from an undercover agent last year.

Brooks Election Appeal rejected: In the course of an hoc meeting of the state Democratic Party executive committee, one conducted partly by conference call from Nashville, the protest by state Representative Henri Brooks of her 20-vote defeat by Ophelia Ford in a special state Senate race was rejected.

A member of the committee said afterward that no formal motion was ever made, and thus no formal vote was taken, on Brooks’ charges that several potential voters had not been apprised of their eligibility and opportunity to vote in the election, held on August 4th, following a change in address. “She just didn’t make the case, and there was evidence refuting her,” said the committee member.

No information was immediately available on Brooks’ further intentions and her possible recourse in the judicial system.

Tuesday’s decision means that Ford, who was thereby formally certified by the committee as the Democratic nominee, will go on to face Republican Terry Roland and independent Robert “Prince Mongo” Hodges in the special District 29 general election on September 15. The seat being contested is the one vacated in late May by ‘Tennessee Waltz’ indictee John Ford.

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