Saturday, April 14, 2007

Week One of the Ford Trial: Videos, Videos, and More Videos

Posted By on Sat, Apr 14, 2007 at 4:00 AM

The FBI and federal prosecutors were nothing if not thorough in making their case against John Ford. By Friday afternoon, jurors must have felt like they were watching reruns of the same episode of a police drama.

What's Coming Up? With seven payoffs down, there are still three more to come next week, along with dozens of tapes of phone conversations between Ford and undercover FBI agent L.C. McNeil. Each conversation sets up or reinforces a payoff to Ford for helping E-Cycle Management get special legislation giving it an edge in the electronics recycling business. The legislation, by FBI design, never actually passed.

Who's on the Stand? McNeil, known to the jury only by his undercover name, will be back on the stand as a prosecution witness Monday. When the government runs out of questions or thinks jurors have heard enough, he will be cross-examined by defense attorney Michael Scholl, probably for several hours. Then the government will attempt to patch up any wounds. McNeil was Ford's running buddy and E-Cycle contact and made the payments to him, carefully counting out $100 bills each time in what, in hindsight, seems a dead giveaway to a sting operation.

Who is L.C. McNeil? The burly, shaven-headed, African-American FBI agent is a specialist in undercover work who has even taught FBI classes in that line. His answers to assistant U.S. Attorney Tim DiScenza's questions are always soft-spoken and to the point. He seems to say as little as possible. He also testified against Roscoe Dixon, and he said on the stand that he has been involved in other Memphis undercover operations that have not yet come to light.

In his fake identity, he is the apparently single father of a son in Chicago, an investor in music industry stock offerings, a film buff, and a world traveler who calls Ford from Singapore, Los Angeles, and Miami and talks about being enroute to Hawaii. Tapes show them talking about partying, talking about women in language that would get a budding Don Imus in trouble, and going to sports events, but McNeil is not nearly as foul-mouthed as Ford. In fact, during one conversation in which Ford is ranting, cursing, and making threats, McNeil interrupts him with a "John, please..." as if he might possibly be slipping momentarily back into his true identity. He calls Ford "cat" and "doctor" and almost always ends his phone conversations with "Peace."

McNeil was recruited for Tennessee Waltz after the investigation had already begun. He looks perfectly capable of handling himself in a fight, which may account for his cool demeanor when Ford threatens him on the tapes.

Does He ever Slip Up? It’s hard to say, but there seems to have been a close call or two. McNeil always refers to his fellow undercover FBI agent Joe Carroll (alias Joe Carson) as simply "Joe." Inevitably, Ford says something like “who?” And McNeil says "my partner." But he never uses his full name, which is perhaps too similar to his real name and too easy to confuse. Other times, McNeil seems to overplay his world-traveller role, making cell phone calls from "Singapore" when he was who-knows-where, and his insistence on counting out the money on top of his desk seems scripted, as indeed it was.

When McNeil either thought or was told by Tim Willis that Ford was nervous, he went to a hidden camera mounted on his body instead of hidden in an office, or he dispensed with videotape completely. On some tapes, he preempts Ford’s paranoia by bringing up the subject of possible TBI surveillance himself. For whatever reason, Ford continued to take the bait.

How Clear are the Bribes? About as clear as a replay of a close play in an NFL football game. Jurors have seen seven payoffs, sometimes from multiple angles, in both color and black-and-white, and sometimes so clearly that the face on the $100 bills can be seen. And if they missed anything, DiScenza usually has McNeil use a marker to put a red arrow or circle around the money.

Could they be Construed as Legit? The intent is as clear as the video quality. McNeil always brings the conversation around to E-Cycle legislation so there is little if any chance of the payment being misconstrued as a legitimate consulting fee. Ford, of course, drives home the nature of the payments by playing the part of the dutiful legislator in the early tapes and, in the later tapes, threatening anyone who rats him out.

So it’s a Slam Dunk Case? Never; that's for the jury to decide. And the defense has hardly fired a shot while Ford takes blow after blow. The catch in the case could be that E-Cycle and McNeil were phony and, therefore, either no real crime was committed or Ford was entrapped, as Scholl suggested in his opening statement. If the jurors are working stiffs, they could be turned off by the FBI's free-spending ways, which have a real-life counterpart to go with the Miami yacht and the fancy dinners. There has already been testimony that Ford was involved in three previous FBI investigations, and Tennessee Waltz ran for two years, with Ford the focus of the second year.

The Court of Public Opinion: On Tuesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is scheduled to testify to the U.S. Senate about fired federal prosecutors. Newly uncovered e-mails indicate that the Justice Department, contrary to previous statements, carefully selected political loyalists to become federal prosecutors, sometimes without courtroom experience. His name hasn't come up, but David Kustoff, the U.S. attorney for Western Tennessee, is a former Bush booster and Republican activist who was chosen to replace Terry Harris (who resigned to take a corporate job) over, among others, an experienced federal prosecutor.

Tennessee Waltz began in 2003, three years before Kustoff came aboard. And DiScenza and colleague Lorraine Craig have carefully asked government witnesses many times whether Ford was targeted originally, and each time the answer is "absolutely not."

But it should not be hard for Scholl to point out that the road to Roscoe Dixon and Kathryn Bowers was all but certain to lead to Ford. Jurors are not supposed to follow the news during the trial, but the convergence of the Ford trial and the Justice Department, in effect, being on trial itself, is bad timing for the government.

Where’s Tim Willis? In the wings. The government will have to put him on the stand to talk about the witness intimidation charge against Ford. He will take his standard beating from the defense (this will be the third trial in which he has testified) and will be questioned sharply about his movie-making, which could suggest that he saw the whole thing as a sort of "Tim’s Excellent Adventure" project to advance his career.

Whose Name has been Dropped? Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton came up in the context of E-Cycle business expansion from state to local government. But DiScenza went out of his way to get McNeil to say, "No, there was no inappropriate activity in Mayor Wharton’s office." Developer Rusty Hyneman, however, did not get a seal of approval, and his gift to Ford of a Rolex watch with a face that "came from outer space" will be a recurring topic of conversation.

Another notable was legislator Jeff Miller, who FBI agents bribed with $1,000 or more. But Miller apparently dodged the noose by claiming it as a campaign contribution. At any rate, agents made no secret that Miller was in their sights.

What was the Ford Quote of the Week? That’s like picking the best azalea bush. "Yeah, I'm like Wal-Mart, I got every last thing you want," is a contender. So is "I have a simple reputation. I get the shit done." The irony of "Loose lips get you in trouble" is not bad. But "I can walk in a room and get more done than 10 motherfuckers" probably sums up the Ford vocabulary and bravado as well as anything. There were many more. But you had to be there. Which, of course, the jury was.

Tech Support: At some point in Tennessee Waltz a fascinating story will be written about the advances in technology that allow undercover agents to hide cameras and microphones so well and get such high-quality footage.

In one meeting Ford does a paranoid – strike that – completely justified and long overdue and far too hasty search of McNeil's E-Cycle office, probing the walls, plants, and pictures of Muhammad Ali for hidden microphones and cameras. You can easily imagine McNeil chuckling to himself, "Cat, we got this shit so well hidden and you so hot for your payday that you ain’t gonna find it in a million years."

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