Operation Tennessee Waltz

“You’re talking to a guy who makes deals.” The unscrupulous state senator John Ford drawled to executives from E-cycle Management, an electronics equipment recycling company in pursuit of lucrative state contracts and legislation. Ford let the executives know at a Miami meeting in April of 2004 that if they wanted the influence and assistance of a powerful committee chair, it would cost them. Specifically, it would cost them three to five-thousand dollars a month for as long as they retained his “services.” But of course the gentlemen at that Miami meeting already knew that. They knew it because there was no such company as E-cycle Management. They knew it because years earlier a Shelby County courthouse loudmouth had told them that he was a bag man for Ford and other high profile elected officials. They knew it, because they were the FBI.

Operation Tennessee Waltz began where most all Tennessee political scandals do, Memphis. The FBI and TBI knew that bribery and corruption were rampant in Tennessee government, and it didn’t take long before they found someone stupid enough to let them in on the scam. Barry Meyers was a Memphis bagman extraordinaire. When he first met with the agents, then disguised as executives from E-cycle Management, he bragged of his influence over several state and local lawmakers, for a price. From there, the feds descended upon and successfully coerced a lobbyist into wearing a wire, and just like that the trap was set.

Hours and hours of surveillance and hidden camera footage, secret recordings, witness testimony, and over $150,000 of bribe money paid out, all culminated on May 24, 2005, sixteen years ago this week. On that date, Memphis grand jury handed down indictments for ten elected officials and two bag men from Shelby and Hamilton counties. State legislators, school board members and county commissioners were all wrapped up in a bipartisan scandal that shook the state to its core.

While a dozen indictments were handed down, the indictment of Senator John Ford, a thirty-one year senate veteran, received the most attention by far. Ford, who took over $50,000 in cash bribes and was caught on video counting the money as he took it, was charged with bribery, extortion, and witness intimidation. In exchange for those $5,000 monthly payments he worked out for himself in Miami, Ford introduced senate bill seven. Senate bill seven, had it actually passed, would have allowed E-cycle Management access to lucrative no-bid government electronics contracts.

Ford, who came from a powerful political dynasty, traded his influence on Capitol Hill for cash. When he became aware that the FBI was looking into his extracurricular activities, he failed to connect the dots and realize that the good folks from E-cycle Management were in fact federal agents. Fearing an indictment, on three different occasions he threatened to kill them if they testified against him. “If someone ever testified against me, I’d shoot that person.” From Ford, who was acquitted in the 1991 killing of a truck driver, and later accused of brandishing a weapon in an altercation, the threats carried weight.

In 2008, Ford was found guilty of accepting bribes and served a fifty-five month sentence in federal prison. Ford’s nephew, congressman Harold Ford Jr., lost a bid for the U.S. Senate against Bob Corker in the aftermath of the scandal. His sister, Ophelia Ford, was appointed to fulfill his term in the state senate. In Memphis, as in many other old southern towns, powerful political families ruled the day. In the aftermath of this embarrassing episode, the legislature established an independent ethics commission to watch over state politics, and it still exists today.

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