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Tennessee Senator Put Under House Arrest

Prosecutors play tapes depicting John Ford as the subject of an FBI sting operation, but the lawmaker avoids jail.

May 28, 2005|From Associated Press

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A judge ordered that a state senator be placed under house arrest Friday over the objections of prosecutors, who played a video of the lawmaker watching an undercover agent count out $10,000 and an audiotape of him threatening a potential witness.

The tapes were played at a bond hearing a day after Sen. John Ford was charged as part of a two-year FBI sting operation nicknamed "Tennessee Waltz." Ford is charged along with four other current and former state lawmakers with taking payoffs, but he alone is accused of threatening to kill witnesses.

U.S. Magistrate Diane Vescovo set bond at $20,000 and ordered Ford to be placed under house arrest until his trial. The lawmaker left the courthouse through a garage exit, avoiding the news media.

Prosecutors argued that Ford should remain in federal custody. A new hearing was scheduled for Tuesday before another federal judge, who could uphold Vescovo's decision, modify it or send Ford back to jail.

Ford is the brother of Harold Ford, who served 11 terms in Congress. His nephew, Rep. Harold Ford Jr., has served five terms in Congress and has said he will run in 2006 for the Senate seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist.

The videotape shows John Ford across a desk from an undercover FBI agent laying down $100 bills for what U.S. Atty. Tim DiScenza said was a bribe. Ford leans over and the agent asks him if he is counting. Ford says, "I ain't trying to count. I trust you."

In a scratchy Feb. 3 audiotape, Ford tells an undercover informant that he owns a gun and could shoot someone. The informant can be heard laughing, which FBI Agent Mark Jackson described as nervous laughter because "the threat sounded legitimate to him."

Jackson said Ford told an agent at a later meeting that "if he caught someone trying to set him up, he would shoot that person, kill them, so that there would be no witnesses."

Ford's attorney, Michael Scholl, suggested the lawmaker was joking with the agent.

"Things are said ... that are meant in a joking manner," Scholl said, adding that "Ford has a problem of running his mouth too much."

Ford was arrested Thursday as part of a sting operation in which undercover agents created a sham company named E-Cycle Management and posed as executives who asked lawmakers to introduce bills to help their business.

The indictments said the lawmakers and two other men took $92,000 to usher bills for E-Cycle through the Legislature. Ford is accused of taking $55,000 between August and April.

The other defendants were released Thursday without posting bond.

Ford can't leave the federal court district except to appear in Nashville before the state Senate Ethics Committee, which is probing him on unrelated allegations. He cannot attend regular sessions of the Legislature.

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