NASHVILLE, Tenn. – State Sen. John Ford (search), a member of one of Tennessee's most powerful political families, has resigned after being placed under house arrest facing charges from a two-year FBI sting, the lieutenant governor said Saturday.
Ford announced his resignation in a letter Lt. Gov. John Wilder (search) read to the Senate.
"I plan to spend the rest of my time with my family clearing my name," he wrote.
A member of the Senate for more than 30 years, Ford was arrested Thursday following the sting operation nicknamed "Tennessee Waltz." He is charged along with four other current and former state lawmakers with taking payoffs, and he is also accused of threatening to kill a witness.
Prosecutors played a videotape Friday of Ford watching an undercover agent count out $10,000 and an audiotape of him allegedly threatening a potential witness. His lawyer suggested the purported threat was meant as a joke.
For the sting, the FBI set up E-Cycle Management Inc., a sham recycling firm with business cards, a Web site, and a chief executive who lobbied lawmakers over wine and finger food.
"This was a major-league effort," said Neil Cohen, a former state prosecutor. "It's not uncommon — it's ongoing all the time all over the country — but there aren't many at this level where there's this much effort and resources and time devoted to one particular sting."
The FBI even went so far as to register E-Cycle (search) as a corporation with the Georgia Secretary of State, listing its chief executive officer as "J Carson." E-Cycle had a storefront office in Memphis, not far from the Beale Street entertainment district.
Undercover agents, posing as executives of E-Cycle, offered lawmakers free trips to Florida and wined and dined them at a reception at a Nashville hotel in January.
"I think it's fair to say this type of thing is expensive," said George Bolds, spokesman for the FBI office in Memphis, who said he could not reveal the exact cost of the sting. "It's kind of an extraordinary and sensitive technique used."
Ford's brother is Harold Ford, who served 11 terms in Congress. His nephew is Rep. Harold Ford (news, bio, voting record) Jr.
During his tenure in the state Senate, John Ford has lost paternity lawsuits, given a political job to a girlfriend, used campaign money for his daughter's wedding and been successfully sued for sexual harassment.
Republican Senate leader Ron Ramsey said the Ethics Committee he chairs was getting ready to file a six-count charge against Ford for violating Senate rules stemming from a separate investigation into allegations he was paid by a consulting company with financial ties to the state's Medicaid program.
"I believe we would have had the votes to remove Sen. Ford from office," Ramsey said.
Sen. Tim Burchett, a Republican, said he was a little surprised by the resignation, "but I think he realized a cat only has nine lives and he's on about life 10."
Ford, Sens. Kathryn Bowers and Ward Crutchfield, and state Rep. Chris Newton were all sponsors of a bill proposed by E-Cycle that would have given the state the option of getting rid of old computer equipment by selling it to a "qualified electronic recycling company."
According to the indictments, the lawmakers and two other men took $92,000 to usher bills for E-Cycle through the Legislature. Ford is accused of taking $55,000.
Bowers, one of the other lawmakers arrested with Ford this week, said she is not guilty and does not plan to resign. "Everybody that knows me knows I'm a fighter," she said.