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VOL. 123 | NO. 19 | Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Scholl Says Number of Trials 'Onerous'

By Bill Dries

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The federal corruption cases involving former City Council member Edmund Ford have taken an unusual path through three grand jury reviews in a year's time.

In that time, Ford picked up a second set of corruption charges and a codefendant, former Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division president Joseph Lee.

The third time proved to be the charm for prosecutors who originally indicted Ford with former City Council member Rickey Peete in December 2006 on charges each took bribes from former County Commissioner Joe Cooper to vote for a billboard zoning change. Peete resigned the following June and pleaded guilty to a bribery count. He began serving a four year and three month prison term this month. Ford was then charged in a superseding indictment with swapping political favors with Lee that involved thousands of dollars in utility bills Ford owed on his Whitehaven business. The indictment lumped those charges together with the original bribery charges in the billboard case.

The superseding indictment was undone in December when U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays ruled the cases had to be separated and that the mistake was so grave Ford and Lee would have to be tried separately on the MLGW charges as well - three trials for two cases.

That's when prosecutors took the case to the grand jury a third time and attempted to remedy the situation with separate indictments. One charged Ford with taking bribes from Cooper. The other charged Lee and Ford with swapping favors.

It appears to have remedied the problem for Mays.

"Why don't we just try them back to back?" he asked both sides during a hearing late last week. "I have a very pragmatic view of this."

Mays set a May 12 trial date for Ford in the billboard case, which is expected to take about a week to try.

Burdens of proof

Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Laurenzi said the government favors going first with those charges because they are the longest pending. That's also the case that will involve recordings of Ford made by Cooper, who wore a wire for the FBI as part of the case. Similar covert recordings made in the 12 Tennessee Waltz corruption sting cases are credited with playing a large role in the two guilty verdicts and 10 guilty pleas in those cases.

But setting three weeks aside for the other trial of Ford and Lee presented more than the problem of finding three otherwise empty weeks on Mays' court calendar. It revealed continuing differences in the legal strategies of attorneys for Ford and Lee. For now, no trial date has been set in that case.

David Howard of Miami, who along with Robert Spence is representing Lee, told Mays they may move to again sever Lee from Ford in the MLGW case if Ford's solo trial remains scheduled to go first.

"There will be spillover prejudice in Lee's case," Howard said after the hearing. "It will definitely put (Lee) in a situation of sitting down next to somebody who has been convicted. I'm not saying (Ford) is going to be convicted. Don't get me wrong. I'm just saying the risk is avoided if the trial in which two people are concerned goes first."

Ford's attorney, Michael Scholl, had a different view but for similar reasons.

"We should have tried all of them together at one time. That's the way the government indicted this case initially," Scholl said.

"A lot of defendants don't want to be tried together. Our biggest concern about wanting to be tried is mainly trying all of the issues at one time. To put my client through two separate trials is very onerous."

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