It was a quiet, uneventful meeting about an arcane piece of legislation. On March 9, at 8 a.m., state comptroller John Morgan walked to the legislative office of Chattanooga state Sen. Ward Crutchfield to discuss a proposed bill dealing with the disposal of surplus computer property.
With Morgan was Charles Harrison, a serious, diligent assistant to the comptroller who had been briefed by a state attorney on the nuances of the legislation.
A former Senate majority leader, the 76-year-old Crutchfield was one of the most respected members of the Tennessee legislature and a font of institutional memory. The Democratic lawmaker knew every conceivable legislative maneuver and understood that all bills can have unintended consequences. This legislation was no different.
Sponsored by Crutchfield's eternally embattled colleague from Memphis, state Sen. John Ford, the legislation would have paved the way for an unknown recycling company by the name of E-Cycle Management to purchase a broad range of electronic devices from the state. It was a seemingly innocuous measure that at first glance seemed to benefit all involved. The comptroller's office had plenty of concerns about the bill, though, chief of which was that it handed a noticeably unfair advantage to E-Cycle by making only recycling companies eligible to purchase a range of electronic devices. This could have shut out other buyers and given the young company a steep competitive advantage.
At the meeting was a well-dressed, middle-aged man named Joe Carson who served as the chief executive of E-Cycle. Wearing a dapper suit, Carson talked intelligently about what E-Cycle had to offer the state. By purchasing used, dilapidated computer equipment and old microwaves, E-Cycle would prevent polluted parts from being deposited in local landfills, he explained. Other purchasers of state equipment indiscriminately dump beat-up computers, Carson said, a self-serving claim that Harrison later discovered was untrue.
At the meeting was a man named Charles Love, who like others in the room that March morning, had a rather complex past. A former director of the Urban League in Chattanooga, Love lost his post after allegations of financial misconduct surfaced. He was later elected to the Hamilton County school board and even served a term as chairman. That March morning, it was not entirely clear who he was working forhimself or his constituents. As a school board member in Crutchfield's Senate district, Love had every reason to take an interest in the bill, which could have affected how school systems across the state purchase surplus computers at a cheap price. And yet, as Harrison recalls, Love didn't say much. He did, however, hand Harrison his business card, which read "Charles Love & Associates."
Harrison recalls that Crutchfield was very interested in the comptroller's office's concerns. He didn't go out of his way to defend the bill, speak up in support of E-Cycle or say anything out of the ordinary.
As the meeting was wrapping up, state Rep. Chris Newton came in the state senator's office. The young Bradley County Republican, who often garnered criticism from conservatives for bucking the party line, didn't have a whole lot to say. Harrison and Morgan told those present that they'd like to draft an amendment to the bill addressing the state's concerns. Essentially, it would have made it more difficult for E-Cycle to purchase surplus equipment from the state by having to compete with rival companies. Harrison recalls that E-Cycle's Carson didn't seem particularly pleased.
Following the meeting, Harrison helped draft the bill's amendment and e-mailed it to Love and Carson. That was the last he heard from either of them.
"At the time, I thought this was just a way to straighten out a piece of legislation," Harrison recalls. "Even looking back, there was nothing that made me suspicious."
Joe Carson had done his job. Working for the FBI, Carson was not a CEO, but he played one in an elaborate sting operation that snared Crutchfield, Ford, Newton and Love in a net of bribery, conspiracy and extortion charges. Three others who were not at the meeting, Memphis state Sen. Kathryn Inez Bowers and her predecessor, Roscoe Dixon, along with political operative Barry Myers, were also charged.
As the purported CEO of a company wishing to do business with the state, Carson threw an impressive party for lawmakers and sat in otherwise mundane meetings about his bill. No one seemed to suspect that he was working for the FBI, which had set up the sham company that Carson had so flawlessly fronted. Looking slick while defending the subtle loopholes of a bill that would enrich his company, Carson had no trouble fitting in at Legislative Plaza.
By March 9, the day Crutchfield hosted the meeting about the E-Cycle bill in his office, investigators had already documented him taking $12,000 in bribes, all of which had been delivered to him by Charles Love. Investigators had also documented Rep. Chris Newton, who came to the meeting late that morning, taking $4,500 in bribes, again delivered from Love.
The first wave of excitement after the news of the Tennessee Waltz indictments ended last 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. Instead, Sen. 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 last Thursday all 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 to the arrests last Thursday morning.
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. that day (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. Dozens of men and women gathered around Capitol Hill televisions in silence, necks upturned, cell phones at ears.
Based on federal indictments that were unsealed last 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. 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.
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 bingo games 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 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 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 Thursday, two days before the General Assembly adjourned.
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. "I promise, I'm not getting indicted," one lobbyist said into her cell phone.
If tension gave way to dark humor on the Hill, 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. 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. If they plead guilty, they don't have to travel to Memphis. For now, the three are released on their own recognizance.
Meanwhile, Fordwhose nephew, Congressman Harold Ford, announced his U.S. Senate candidacy the day before the arrestsspent last Thursday night in jail and faced a detention hearing before ultimately resigning in a two-line letter addressed to Senate Speaker John Wilder, who, in a bizarre prayer, defended his colleagues on the Senate floor.
Meanwhile, Ford's lawyer says the now-former lawmaker insists he's not guilty. "He is going to fight this thing. He is adament about his innocence," says defense attorney Michael Scholl, declining to comment about the evidence against Ford. He says only, "the tape is the tape."
In Nashville, 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 had the people's business to do.
If you're John Ford, the circle of people you can trust just keeps getting smaller. Tim Willis was supposed to be a Ford family friend, but by Friday afternoon, it became pretty clear that his name wouldn't be included on the 2005 Christmas card list. That's when federal prosecutors played a recording of Willis' voice in the Memphis courtroom where Ford, who by then had spent a night in federal custody, was sitting through a federal detention hearing.
What he heard couldn't have surprised him too much. After all, two or three people had apparently warned him of possible undercover activity by the FBI: on Feb. 3 of this year, according to a transcript of the conversation, he told Willis that "Roscoe" (presumably Roscoe Dixon) told him to be careful, that the FBI made a point of "go[ing] around with a lot of cash money and b.s. here and there, you know."
"Yeah, the FBI has a lot of shell companies too," Ford continued to his federally wired friend. "That's what I'm afraid of. See, I'm familiar with how they work. They have a lot of shell companies, and I mean, I just want to make certain, man...."
But alas, it was too late. And to make matters worse, Ford threatened to kill his friend if he was found to be collaborating with any investigators. "Well, let me ask you a question. You ain't workin' for none of the motherfuckers," he said, to what's been described as nervous laughter from Willis. "If you are, just tell me. I got a gun. I'll just shoot you dead."
So who is Tim Willis, the Ford friend turned informant? According to various reports, Willis was a political operative who had been active in Democratic politics. (In 2001, the Commercial Appeal linked him to the campaigns of Al Gore and Phil Bredesen.) In addition, Willis was a PR consultant who snagged his most high-profile contract in 2001, for the new Memphis arena building authority.
He was also a criminal, arrested not long after winning the contract on charges of credit card fraud in Mississippi. He served four months, but soon made the papers again amid a federal probe of the Memphis Juvenile Court Clerk's office.
By February 2003, a former juvenile court clerk aide named Darrell Catron pled guilty to felony embezzlement charges. According to a newspaper report at the time, federal prosecutors told the judge of a "kickback scheme allegedly involving an unnamed Shelby County government contractor, Catron and other unnamed public officials." Willis wasn't charged with anything. But soon thereafter, Operation Tennessee Waltz began. Did he cooperate with the FBI to avoid serving more prison time?
All that's clear for now is that Willis is keeping his distance, reportedly in California, far away from one of the biggest federal investigations in Tennessee history, a dragnet in which he is a central figure. As far away as possible from his former friend John Ford.
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