VOL. 123 | NO. 98 | Monday, May 19, 2008
Ford Trial’s Nuances Appear Made for TV
By Bill Dries
POINT TAKEN: The federal corruption trial of former Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford Sr. continues this week. Ford is shown here on his way into court late last week. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES
Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Laurenzi told a federal court jury last week that the trial of former City Council member Edmund Ford Sr. would, in part, be about “a corrupt environment” at Memphis City Hall.
Since then the jury in the case has watched recordings of Ford taking cash from a fallen politician who has said many questionable things on and off the witness stand, but who was unquestionably working for several developers who relied on council zoning decisions for their livelihood.
Getting former County Commissioner Joe Cooper to describe what he does for a living can take a while. It’s not a conventional job description. He’s likened himself to “the world’s greatest concierge.”
Ford defense attorney Michael Scholl said it amounted to “running around town trying to get rich people to give you money.”
Cooper has worked for millionaires he says “aren’t used to being told no” and he’s done business with a drug dealer accused of murder. Cooper deals in “putting people in cars” leased in the names of other people who get the monthly lease bills. That was the case for Ford, whose mortuary had a Cadillac lease co-signed by developer Rusty Hyneman.
La, la, la, can’t hear you
Ford appeared very anxious at several of the meetings to talk with Cooper about a plan to have developer Jackie Welch put up some of the $350,000 needed for Ford to privately finance a planned purchase of the Whitehaven property he was renting for his mortuary.
Ford even continued talking to Cooper about the possibility as Cooper was trying to end the meeting.
Cooper testified last week that he never contacted Welch and that he brought up Welch’s name as part of the undercover sting. Welch is not implicated in the case or charged with any wrongdoing.
Ford would put off Cooper on the other matters and leave phone calls unreturned, prompting Cooper to show up at his mortuary unannounced at times.
Cooper constantly reminded Ford when the council would take up a billboard zoning matter that is what the bribery case is all about. Ford persistently dodged Cooper’s request that he contact then-City Attorney Sara Hall about a legal opinion on billboards from the Tennessee Attorney General’s office on behalf of developer William H. Thomas Jr.
Finally, Cooper found Hall’s office number, punched it up on his cell phone and handed the phone to Ford, who reluctantly left a voicemail. But Ford wanted to work out some
kind of financing to buy the mortuary property.
Now hear this ...
Just before the case goes to the jury later this week, jurors will get a set of instructions from U.S. District Court Judge Hardy Mays about the legal criteria for judging the corruption allegations.
Scholl told the jury in his opening statement that Ford did nothing illegal: “It’s not a crime. It may not be good sense,” he said of Ford’s lack of any hesitancy to mix private and public business.
At one point in his testimony last week, Cooper said he had never given Ford cash before the first payment that was recorded and arranged by his FBI handlers. But he said he had done “favors” for Ford and others.
“I have a relationship with him. I didn’t use cash. I used favors that really meant something to him,” Cooper said. “It’s not about friendship. It’s about business.”
And Cooper repeatedly made a crucial admission that he and Ford never had a conversation specifically about Ford’s vote in favor of the billboard zoning case approved by the council in October 2006.
“I’ve never had any conversations about bribes with Mr. Ford,” Cooper said.
Still later during the grueling cross-examination, Cooper said, “We’ve never actually had a conversation of tit for tat.”
At the end of the government’s case, Scholl moved for a verdict of acquittal from Mays.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Colthurst cited a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in a similar corruption case in which the court ruled there didn’t have to be a spoken agreement.
“Quid pro quo is not required,” he told Mays. “The issue is whether the payment was for official acts. He repeatedly accepted money.”
Mays agreed with Colthurst and denied the motion.
“The jury will decide what the meaning of the exchange was,” Mays said. “Substantial sums were paid to Mr. Ford. It was contemporaneous with actions Mr. Ford took and was asked to take. There is no need to have an explicit agreement.”
Cooper was on the witness stand for about two court days altogether. He was followed by a string of witnesses called by the government to show how the City Council is supposed to operate and how zoning matters are heard by the council and other local government agencies.
Board of Adjustments chairman John Shepherd was among the prosecution witnesses.
Shepherd was, according to the indictment, the target of an attempt to remove him as chairman. It was an ouster attempt Cooper testified was not part of the government sting, but a goal he was pursuing with Ford for billboard developer William H. Thomas Jr. Thomas is not charged with any wrongdoing. None of the money passed by Cooper to Ford came from Thomas. It was given to Cooper by his FBI handlers.
Colthurst asked Shepherd if he was aware of the attempt to remove him as chairman. But before Shepard could answer, the attorneys talked about the question at a private bench conference with Mays.
When the bench conference ended, Colthurst pursued a different line of questioning and the earlier question remained unanswered.