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VOL. 123 | NO. 102 | Friday, May 23, 2008

‘Not Guilty’ Eclipses Week of Ford Trial Highlights

By Andy Meek

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ACQUITTED: Former Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford spoke with the media following his acquittal Wednesday on federal bribery charges. -- PHOTO BY ERIC SMITH

Outside the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays Wednesday afternoon, reporters waiting for word of a verdict in the Edmund Ford federal corruption trial reflected on memorable phrases uttered during the court proceedings.

Someone mentioned the description that Joe Cooper, the government’s star witness in the case, gave of himself when he said that for a time he was the “world’s greatest concierge.” Someone else mentioned Cooper’s assertion that lying to get things done in the business world is “the American way.”

Cooper, a former member of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, wore a wire and cooperated with federal prosecutors in the bribery and corruption case against Ford, a former Memphis City Council member. The government sought to prove that several thousand dollars Cooper gave Ford in 2006 to win his support for a client that Cooper represented amounted to a bribe.

As Wednesday afternoon progressed, however, it soon became clear that one phrase would overshadow those others as the most memorable one heard during Ford’s closely watched trial. That phrase consists of the words “Not Guilty,” uttered six times.

Mays’ recitation of the jury’s not guilty verdict to all six of the charges against Ford was one of many surprises during the trial, which lasted a few days past the one-week mark. Ford wiped his eyes after the jury of seven women and five men acquitted him on three counts of bribery and three counts of extortion.

‘It’s over’

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, Ford 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 members of his family. “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 from Cooper 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.

That exchange capped a trial that introduced jurors to the nexus of the political and business worlds in Memphis. Cooper – a former car salesman, perennial candidate for public office and a political consultant – provided the centerpiece of the government’s 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 along Interstate 240.

One major theme of the defense presented by Ford’s attorney, Michael Scholl, is the video recordings Cooper made of his encounters with Ford show Cooper pitching at least four financial deals to the councilman on behalf of developers. And there was never one moment when Cooper told Ford that money would be given to him in exchange for any official act on Ford’s part.

Cooper’s secret recordings of those meetings with Ford show the councilman taking several thousand dollars from Cooper that had been 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.”

Later in the day, Cooper gave an on-camera interview to a local TV news station in which he said he believed “the jury got it wrong.”

Joyful while looking ahead

Ford entered Mays’ courtroom Wednesday afternoon holding hands with his wife, who was the first witness called by the defense during the trial.

A few members of the jury 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 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.

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.

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

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 that 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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