Attorneys Seek Separate Trials for Lee and Ford

By Andy Meek

The legal team representing former Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division head Joseph Lee in his federal bribery case has fired another salvo in defense of their client.

They want Lee and City Council member Edmund Ford to be tried separately.

Lee, the former president and CEO of the city's public utility company, was indicted in July along with Ford. Federal prosecutors charged that the two men had been engaged in illegal favor-swapping after an investigation that lasted several months.

In return for favorable support from Ford, the feds allege, Lee allowed Ford to slide for years on his utility payments, racking up more than $16,000 in debt. Meanwhile, when the two men were indicted together about two months ago, Ford was already under a separate indictment on unrelated charges.

The recent accusations involving Lee were added to Ford's charges, resulting in a larger indictment. And that's where Lee's defense team focused a few days ago in a court filing, arguing that one isn't related to the other.

A parting of ways

Ford originally had been charged with pocketing a bribe to support a billboard development. After the councilman's arrest last December, the feds reportedly began looking into other aspects of Ford's finances, probing his various debts, which included his past due MLGW accounts.

That led federal agents to MLGW's Downtown office complex, where they began looking into the specifics of Ford's utility accounts and questioning employees.

Nevertheless, Lee's attorneys argue that most of the total indictment involving Ford and Lee includes charges that Lee had nothing to do with. That's the reason for their recent court filing to separate the two defendants, in which they submitted a request to "respectfully move the court to sever (Lee's) case from that of his co-defendant and grant them separate trials on the ground of improper joinder."

No hearing has been set on the motion.

Lee's attorney Robert Spence said in the filing that he has consulted with the government's team on the case and they do not agree with the request to separate the cases of Ford and Lee. Spence also said he's been unable to speak to Ford's attorney about the matter.

Broad tapestry

At a July press conference, U.S. Attorney David Kustoff explained that the new charges against Ford and the addition of Lee to his indictment grew out of a broader federal probe.

"Main Street Sweeper is an FBI investigation into public corruption of public officials in Memphis and Shelby County," he said. "This investigation is a continuation of Operation Main Street Sweeper, which has been handled, conducted and led by the FBI's Memphis division."

My Harrison, special agent in charge of the FBI's Memphis office, added at that time, "All I can say is the overwhelming majority of our politicians or government employees are honest, hard-working people who go about doing the right thing for the right reasons.

"Yet you still have those few, those few bad apples, who feel like they're entitled. Entitled to additional compensation in addition to their salaries."

The issue of preferential treatment of MLGW customers continues to be a hot-button item, showing up, for example, in some of the discussion in Monday night's televised debate among mayoral candidates on WREG-TV.

Candidates Carol Chumney, a current Memphis City Council member, and former Shelby County commissioner John Willingham took turns taking shots at Herman Morris Jr.- Lee's predecessor at the utility company - for creating what has been referred to as a VIP list.

Critics charge that list was similar to, if not the same as, the kind of treatment Lee gave some customers. Morris, at Monday night's debate, countered - as he almost always has - that he wanted to know when issues arose with the accounts of prominent customers, because they'd likely get in touch with him about them anyway.

Cooper caveat

Meanwhile, Lee and Ford continue preparing their defense.

One clue that may foreshadow how the trial will go is the sentencing of Joe Cooper, the government informant originally snagged in a money laundering probe who then offered to help with the investigation of Ford. His sentencing was postponed shortly after Ford's July indictment.

The reason, according to a July motion by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Colthurst after Ford was newly charged, is that "the government is requesting a 120-day continuance to permit (Cooper) to provide additional assistance which may be considered in sentencing."

Also, "Mr. Cooper is expected to be a government witness in the trial of Memphis City Councilman Edmund Ford."