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VOL. 123 | NO. 101 | Thursday, May 22, 2008

While Acquitted Wednesday, Ford Still Awaits Separate Pay-for-Favors Trial

By Andy Meek

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Former Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford wiped his eyes after a jury of seven women and five men acquitted him Wednesday afternoon on three counts of bribery and three counts of extortion.

The tears soon were replaced with vocal outbursts of joy. When reporters approached him for comment outside the courtroom after the verdict had been read, the former councilman threw his arms forward and boomed: “It’s over.” Speaking to reporters in the plaza area outside the federal building, the ex-councilman raised his arms in thanks.

“I just want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Because he knows. He was there in the courtroom with me,” said Ford, who was flanked by his wife, Myrna, and other family members. “This is my other half. And these are my children. This is who I live for every day.”

Ford, who had been charged with taking bribes in 2006 to support a billboard development proposal that needed council approval, gestured at one point to his attorneys.

He exclaimed: “You know, between them and my God....” then held up his hands as if to say nothing more was needed.

No comment

That exchange capped a trial that lasted a little more than a week and that introduced jurors to the nexus of the political and business worlds in Memphis. Joe Cooper – a former car salesman, perennial candidate for public office and a political consultant – was the government’s star witness in the case against Ford.

One of the things Cooper sought from Ford was support in steering the council to approve a billboard development that local landowner William H. Thomas was trying to build.

Cooper, who also is a former Shelby County Board of Commissioners member, made secret video recordings of several meetings with Ford in 2006 during which Cooper gave the councilman several thousand dollars supplied by the FBI. The government tried to prove those payments constituted bribes.

Cooper declined to comment when reached by phone Wednesday afternoon.

“I don’t think it’s my place to comment about this,” he said. “I told the truth on the stand. I think it’s the U.S. Attorney’s place to comment on this. Other than that I have no comment.”

No sore losers

Ford entered U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays’ courtroom Wednesday afternoon holding hands with his wife, who was the first witness called by the defense during the trial. A few jury members were smiling as they filed into the courtroom before the verdict was read.

The case had been turned over to the jury at about 4 p.m. Tuesday. The jury foreman passed Mays a note at about 4 p.m. Wednesday containing the jury’s verdict, which Mays then read aloud.

In Ford’s case, it took about eight hours to get the jury’s verdict. By comparison, the jury in the 2007 federal corruption trial of Ford’s brother – former Tennessee state Sen. John Ford, who was snared in the Tennessee Waltz investigation – took three full days to deliberate.

John Ford was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison for accepting $55,000 in bribes as a state legislator.

Edmund Ford’s attorney, Michael Scholl, appeared to wipe his eyes after the verdict was read and while the jurors were being individually polled by Mays. Shortly afterward, in the hallway outside the courtroom, federal prosecutor Larry Laurenzi said the case was not about whether prosecutors win or lose but whether justice is done.

Speaking to a throng of reporters outside the federal building, Scholl was asked what he considered to be the defining point of Ford’s trial.

“The defining point in this trial is that Mr. Ford didn’t take a bribe,” he said.

Innocent until proven otherwise

Prosecutors, meanwhile, don’t have much time to second-guess anything about the case they presented to jurors. Ford is still scheduled to be a co-defendant in a second federal corruption trial that will begin Aug. 4 at 9:30 a.m.

Ford’s fellow defendant in that case will be former Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division president and CEO Joseph Lee.

In that case involving Ford and Lee, Ford is accused of trading his political influence for unusual leniency from Lee in clearing up overdue utility bills.

Reached by The Daily News Wednesday afternoon, Lee’s attorney, Robert Spence, said he was happy to hear Ford had been acquitted.

“I’m certainly pleased for Ed Ford and his family,” Spence said. “Now we’re also looking forward to Joseph Lee getting his day in court.”

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