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VOL. 123 | NO. 100 | Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Trial’s Outcome Likely to Follow Its Stars

By Bill Dries

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Neither of the two principal players in the federal corruption trial of former Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford Jr. will walk away from the trial unscathed.

The credibility of the government’s key witness, Joe Cooper, took a beating in the first week of the trial from defense attorney Michael Scholl. And Ford, who testified this week, couldn’t explain away to Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Laurenzi the money he took from Cooper in recordings that are the heart of the government’s case.

Ford, who during his two terms on the council was a volatile political presence at times, was calm throughout the hour-long direct examination by Scholl.

Money issues

Ford began by repeatedly denying that he took money from Cooper, a former Shelby County Board of Commissioners member, for his vote and influence on a billboard zoning matter.

“I’m a hard-working person. I eat one meal a day,” Ford said. “No, I don’t believe in that. I believe in what’s right.”

Cooper, who is the government’s star witness, approached Ford on behalf of developer William H. Thomas Jr. but also was cooperating with the FBI and recording his conversations with Ford. He also gave Ford several thousand dollars in cash supplied by the FBI.

“Did you take $3,000 for your vote?” Scholl asked Ford of the first recorded meeting in August 2006.

“No, because the $3,000 came from Rusty Hyneman,” Ford replied, referring to another developer who is listed as the cosigner of Ford’s car lease.

Ford told Scholl that Hyneman’s name was not on the lease when he originally signed it. And Hyneman has filed a civil suit in Chancery Court claiming his name was forged on the lease. The car lease paperwork has been a major dispute in the trial.

Ford’s wife, Myrna, testified she and her husband were surprised when Cooper called in 2005 to alert them of a coming Commercial Appeal story that showed Hyneman was the cosigner. Myrna Ford also testified that a year later she attempted to contact Hyneman to pay back the $3,000 Cooper gave her husband in the name of the developer.

Edmund Ford testified that in the recorded conversations he wasn’t really listening to what Cooper was saying at all times.

“He just ran off at the mouth. … He talked about everything,” he said.

Roll the tape

Ford had a much tougher time during the cross-examination. Laurenzi replayed the recordings after Ford refused at times to answer his questions about what was being discussed as $3,000 in cash was on the table between the two during the conversation. At one point, Ford insisted Laurenzi wasn’t asking the question the right way.

“The money’s on the table?” Laurenzi asked.

“Yes, it was on the table,” Ford replied. “But we’re talking about two different things.”

“But the money was on the table,” Laurenzi repeated.

“Yes, it was,” Ford said.

To make his point, each time Ford equivocated on what happened at one of the recorded meetings, Laurenzi played the section where Ford took the money.

“You picked up that money. You put it in your pocket. What were you discussing?” Laurenzi asked at one point.

“I don’t remember,” Ford replied.

Laurenzi then played the recording of Ford talking about council members and how they might vote on the billboard zoning case.

“I can handle the rest of them,” Ford said on the recording.

When Laurenzi asked Ford what he meant by that, Ford testified, “There was no meaning at all.”

Ford also insisted he contacted no council members to round up votes for the zoning matter as he told Cooper he would in the recordings.

“Why would you be lying to your good friend Joe Cooper?” Laurenzi asked.

“Joe Cooper had an imaginary mind,” Ford said. “There was about two or three Joe Coopers. The Joe Cooper I knew was a nice person. Everybody liked Joe Cooper, but they didn’t pay him no attention.”

Ford testified after his wife completed her testimony that began the defense’s portion of the case on Friday.

“Everybody knows Joe Cooper,” Myrna Ford said during her testimony.

She said she was used to seeing him from time to time. But when Cooper began working undercover for the FBI, she said she saw him a lot more frequently.

Scholl asked if Cooper’s frequent presence became “annoying.” Ford wouldn’t say annoying, but she said Cooper suddenly was such a frequent visitor that some mortuary employees joked that Cooper should be given an office to keep him away from grieving families.

Ford was in the next room in August 2006 when Cooper made his first payment of $3,000 to her husband. It was the first meeting in which Cooper recorded the entire conversation for the FBI using money they had supplied him to give to Ford.

She said after the meeting, her husband brought her the cash. She put the money in a safe for deposit in a bank later. She made arrangements to have the money electronically transferred to get the mortuary current on overdue lease payments on the Cadillac.

And Ford testified she tried to call Hyneman to apologize for being late in the payments and to make arrangements to pay back the money but couldn’t reach him.

Laurenzi wasn’t interested in the distinction since Cooper was the one who brought Ford the notice of an overdue lease payment in the first recorded meeting.

“You were driving the car. At the end of the day, you were driving the car,” he told Ford.

Ford argued that none of the business arrangements Cooper was relaying in the names of developers with business before the council were for his vote or his influence.

PROPERTY SALES 64 87 1,429
MORTGAGES 39 60 1,107