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VOL. 123 | NO. 95 | Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Opening Statements Get Ford Trial Under Way

By Bill Dries

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The defense and prosecution in the corruption trial of former Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford Sr. have given the jury in the federal case very different explanations for the money Ford is accused of having taken.

The opening statements began Tuesday in the trial before U.S. District Court Judge Hardy Mays. It was followed by testimony from federal agents who supervised the undercover case and set the stage for government informant Joe Cooper’s testimony, which was expected either Tuesday afternoon or this morning.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Laurenzi told the jury that the case was about Ford, who “readily accepted” bribes from Cooper “in a corrupt environment.”

“Mr. Ford was always looking for something Mr. Cooper could do for him,” Laurenzi told the jury.

And he contended Ford swapped his vote on the council for several thousand dollars Cooper provided to make some late car notes.

Meanwhile, Michael Scholl, Ford’s attorney, said the case is about Cooper.

The centerpiece of the government’s case will be video and audio recordings of Ford taking money from Cooper, who is a former Shelby County Board of Commissioners member.

Scholl said those tapes represent “a small portion of what actually took place in this case.”

“I’m going to show you the whole picture. … This case is about an evil person, a criminal, a liar,” Scholl said, referring to Cooper. “A man who’ll do whatever it takes to keep himself from going to prison again.”

Cooper was convicted in the late 1970s on loan fraud and was forced to resign from the County Commission as a result. Because of the notoriety, Scholl portrayed Cooper as two-faced with one face being an amiable “back slapper” while the other is “the lying criminal, the one who will stab you in the back.”

Both sides of the case agreed the money paid to Ford was to go for car payments. Scholl contended that Cooper never said outright it was for a council vote and often discussed other business matters with Ford.

“Mr. Cooper knows he can’t just walk in there and hand him money,” Scholl told the jury.

Laurenzi said the proof is Ford on video recordings taking Cooper’s cash from a table and then immediately saying, “I’ll get you seven (votes) or I’ll make somebody walk out.”

One surprise came Tuesday morning during the testimony of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Raymond Brown. He testified about the drug case in which Cooper was accused and pleaded guilty to laundering money for drug dealers.

When Cooper was confronted by drug agents, he began cooperating in the investigation of political corruption. Brown said agents found drugs in Ford’s home during a search at the end of the corruption sting operation.

Ford isn’t accused of any drug offenses and Mays ordered the jury to disregard the testimony, which didn’t go into any detail about whether the drugs were legal or illegal.

A jury of seven women and five men was seated Monday at the end of the first day of the trial. Both sides have told Mays

they expect the trial to take most of the week.

Ford’s attorney tipped his hand early on the first day of the trial when he began by objecting to a prologue on the recordings. In that prologue, an FBI agent said the recording will show Ford taking a bribe.

“Nowhere on the tape between Cooper and Ford is it called a bribe,” Scholl told Mays.

“The issue in this trial is whether this is a bribe payment.”

Mays pledged to make sure the jury draws no conclusion from the statement and will review the prologue before it is seen by the jury.

“Everybody take a deep breath. I think we’re all here,” Mays told the pool of 105 prospective jurors after they took every seat in the courtroom Monday morning.

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