The first wave of excitement ended Thursday afternoon in an all-too-familiar scene. A state senator, reporters on his heels, ducks into the men's room of a government building. But this time it wasn't Sen. John Ford hiding out in a Capitol Hill bathroom. Instead, Chattanooga Sen. Ward Crutchfield and his attorney scuttled down the dimly lit hallway of the federal courthouse in Nashville and away from reporters giving chase.
Ford's bathroom, if he ducked into one at all, was miles away at the federal courthouse in Memphis, where the events that culminated Thursday all first began two years ago, federal officials say.
Code-named "Operation Tennessee Waltz" and headed by FBI agents and the U.S. Attorney's office in Memphiswith collaboration from FBI, TBI and U.S attorneys in Nashville and Knoxvillethe long-running investigation led Thursday morning to the arrests of Crutchfield, Ford, Sen. Kathryn Bowers and Rep. Chris Newton, along with former Sen. Roscoe Dixon and two other men: Charles Love, a Hamilton county school board member, and Barry Myers, a Memphis man.
While Gov. Phil Bredesen told reporters in a midday press briefing that he'd first gotten word of the impending arrests at 6 a.m. Thursday (though he said he knew of "the fact" of a faceless investigation some months ago), the fiasco wasn't known more widely on the Hill until later in the morning. By which time, the only thing swirling faster than the smoky air inside the Tennessee state legislature were the ever-changing rumors. Lobbyists, legislators and reporters whizzed past each other all morning, swapping stories and sharing notes as each tried to figure out exactly what had already happenedand whether there was more to come. As TV news reporters updated the story throughout the morningmost accurately, but some based on mere rumordozens of men and women gathered around Capitol Hill televisions in silence, necks upturned, cell phones at ears.
At times, as many as 12 legislators were rumored to be netted in the undercover stingalthough by 11 a.m. Thursday it became apparent that seven individuals had been arrested and others may have been interviewed but were not taken into custody. U.S. Attorney Jim Vines, asked if there were more arrests to be made, said only, "Not today."
Based on federal indictments that were unsealed Thursday morning, the seven are charged with a variety of federal corruption offenses, including bribery and extortion. Ford also faces three counts of threatening or intimidating witnesses, including threats to kill. It all relates to the lawmakers' involvement with a sham company, set up by the government under the name E-Cycle, which promised to dispose of used computer and technology equipment; the indictments allege that the legislators were paid by E-Cycle to support House Bill 37 (a.k.a. Senate Bill 94), which was sponsored by 10 representatives and senators, four of whom were arrested Thursday morning.
Interestingly, Richard Knudsen, a former FBI agent of 30 years with no involvement in Operation Tennessee Waltz, tells the Scene that both state Sen. John Ford and recently retired state Sen. Roscoe Dixon were "persons of interest" in the Rocky Top investigation. That scandal, which culminated in 1992, revealed abuses in state-regulated bingos and raffles, and involved bribery and raids of illegal gambling operations. Professional gamblers were buying gambling licenses and currying favor with various lawmakers and Secretary of State Gentry Crowell. Crowell later committed suicide. Neither Ford nor Dixon was ever charged with any wrongdoing.
"We were concerned about his actions and had reason to believe he might be approachable," Knudsen says of Ford. "In his defense, nothing came of it." Nevertheless, he says about Ford's indictment, "this appears to be long overdue".
Knudsen believes that many payments from gamblers to legislators were disguised as either political contributions or consulting fees. Knudsen also adds that a federal investigation of public corruption such as this one, targeting lawmakers and other public officials, some of whom are black, goes through "millions of hoops" so as to be invulnerable to criticism.
Meanwhile, lawmakers insisted the wheels of state bureaucracy would not come to a grinding halt.
"We're still in control of the government," Rep. Rob Briley told the Scene in a legislative plaza corridor. Despite the ongoing action, the Nashville legislator says he and his colleagues hope to pass a budget and adjourn the General Assembly on time. Getting the hell out of town has never sounded like such a good idea.
Meanwhile, folks continued to swirl around the legislative bunker, abuzz with chatter that was only slightly diminished by an 11 a.m. Thursday press conference by federal officials in Memphis. "I promise, I'm not getting indicted," one lobbyist said into her cell phone. Another cautioned a friend: "Don't stay in one place too long; you'll get indicted."
Links to Federal Indictments
House Bill 37, on which indictments were based
If tension gave way to dark humor on the Hilland where else could you find a more cynical crowd?not so at the federal courthouse. By noon Thursday, Bowers, Crutchfield and Newton were in federal magistrate Joe Brown's packed seventh-floor courtroom, as were Vines and several of his assistant U.S. attorneys. The defendants entered solemn-faced, wearing handcuffs, and were accompanied by a bevy of defense attorneys. All three read, for the first time, their indictments, which contain specific allegations of bribery and corruption. Like the politicians they are, however, Crutchfield and Newton managed to smile occasionally and joke with their attorneys. (Maybe the macabre was alive and well, after all.) Bowers, dressed in a bright greenish-yellow jacket, never cracked a smile.
After Brown advised the three of their rights and listed the charges against themsix counts against Bowers and two each against Crutchfield and Newtonhe informed them that "not guilty" pleas must be entered in the Western District of Tennessee, which is where the indictment originated. Should they plead guilty, they don't have to make a trip to Memphis. But all that will be decided no sooner than next week; for now, the three are released on their own recognizance.
Ford, meanwhilewhose nephew, Congressman Harold Ford, announced his U.S. Senate candidacy just yesterdaywas to face a detention hearing in Memphis stemming from his charges of witness intimidation. Ford spent the night in jail.
Judge Brown declared in open court that he had expected Ford to appear before him and that, furthermore, Ford's attorney had been calling him to find out what was up. Brown asked assistant U.S. Attorney Bret Hester why Ford's detention hearing was being held in Memphis. Hester cited a rule of federal procedure, but Brown was clearly annoyed to be missing out on the action. "I've never seen that procedure used in some 30 years of government service," he said. "But it's a new age, I guess."
And in the early aftermath of this Tennessee Waltz, how right Brown is. As Crutchfield left the federal courthouse, his attorneys fighting off news cameras and microphones, the senator declared he had no further comment with the simple but prophetic words, "I'm through."
Crutchfield's attorney said the senator was heading back to the legislature, presumably to attend a committee meeting. After all, he's got the people's business to do.
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