Tangled Web Snags Ford and Lee, Both Indicted for Bribery and Other Offenses

By Bill Dries

The newest corruption charges against Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford include not only a new codefendant, former Memphis Light Gas & Water (MLGW) President Joseph Lee. They also include a case that appears to be built in large part on Ford's public record as an elected official.

Ford and Lee were indicted this week on one count of extortion and two counts each of theft or bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds.

The case against Ford and Lee is unique compared to other corruption and bribery cases involving elected officials. It cites Ford's public statements and public votes as proof of the corruption along with e-mail and other written notices to Lee by MLGW employees that Ford's utility bills on his mortuary at 3390 Elvis Presley Blvd. and another building at 3402 Elvis Presley were overdue by thousands of dollars over a two-year period.

Most corruption cases involving an elected official allege an exchange of money for a specific act by the politician. They also usually involve clandestine or hidden meetings in which there are alleged payoffs or talk of payoffs.

That includes Ford's earlier and still pending indictment in December 2006 on bribery charges for taking payoffs from former County Commissioner Joe Cooper. Cooper was recording the payoffs and other conversations, according to those charges, as part of his cooperation with the federal probe.

Those earlier charges against Ford are included in this week's superseding indictment, meaning Ford will be tried on all of the charges together.

The new charges make no reference to Ford or Lee ever discussing an exchange of favors on a specific date.

Comedy of errors

After a brief hearing Wednesday before a federal magistrate, Lee's attorney, Robert Spence, called the new charges "ridiculous" and "Alice in Wonderland."

Lee was released on his own recognizance pending trial after pleading not guilty.

The basic charge is that Lee blocked attempts to cut off Ford's utilities in exchange for Ford's earlier support in the spring and summer of 2004 of Lee's nomination to become president of Memphis Light Gas & Water Division. And Ford allegedly continued to support Lee in matters before the council as chairman of the body in 2005 and chairman of the General Services and Utilities Committee in 2006 in exchange for Lee continuing to ignore the delinquent bills.

"In return for Edmund Ford's support ... Lee forestalled payment collection efforts on outstanding balances on (Ford's) accounts," U.S. Attorney David Kustoff said. "Mr. Ford was an important supporter of Mr. Lee's administration of MLGW as it was overseen by the Memphis City Council."

Council committees review matters to be voted on by the full council. But a committee vote against a matter does not stop the full council from considering it. It represents a recommendation by the committee.

Until Tom Marshall's current tenure as chairman, it had been council practice for years to allow any council member present to vote in committee sessions even if they were not members of that committee.

Marshall also removed Ford and Rickey Peete as chairman or vice chairman of any committees after they were charged in late 2006. Peete also was accused of taking bribes from Cooper for the same billboard zoning matter. He resigned in June and later pleaded guilty.

The devil and Mr. Lee

Lee testified before the grand jury Feb. 27, one week after federal agents requested Ford's utility records. Spence was asked if his client had been notified by prosecutors that he was a target of the inquiry. He brushed off the question saying, "We're not going to get into that."

The question came up again at a stormy March 20 question-and-answer session with the Council. Lee was asked by attorney Saul Belz, the attorney heading an independent investigation of Ford's utility bills sanctioned by Marshall and signed off on by the Herenton administration.

With Marshall repeating the question, Spence angrily said it was no one's business but Lee's.

Lee offered his resignation to Mayor Willie Herenton on March 1 and Herenton refused to accept it. After a new controversy over whether the utility should pay his legal fees and an allegation by MLGW board member Nick Clark that Lee attempted to blackmail him, Herenton accepted Lee's resignation May 3 along with that of MLGW general counsel Odell Horton Jr.

Ford paid the more than $16,000 he owed to MLGW by a March 27 deadline set by the utility board.

Guilt by association

Also indicted in a separate case Wednesday was Dennis Churchwell, who along with his wife, Lynley Churchwell, owned 3390 Elvis Presley until a recent sale of the property at auction to Ford.

Dennis Churchwell is accused in four of six perjury counts with lying to a grand jury when questioned about whether he had forgiven $24,500 in back rent Ford owed in exchange for Ford's council vote in favor of a special use permit for another piece of property owned by Churchwell. The permit was needed so Churchwell could sell and store used heavy equipment at 3403 Elvis Presley.

The counts include transcripts of Churchwell's grand jury testimony.

Churchwell denied that Ford owed the money for 2005 despite a letter from Churchwell's attorney to Ford in February 2006 stating that Ford owed the money

The other two perjury counts are for Churchwell answering two questions at the same March 27 grand jury session about whether he had filed his tax return for 2006. He said he had. The deadline for filing personal annual federal tax returns was April 17. The indictment doesn't specify what kind of tax return Churchwell was being asked about.