MEMPHIS, Tenn. – As one of Tennessee's most powerful state senators, John Ford bragged that he would have little trouble getting a new law passed to benefit a computer recycling company.
However, the company turned out to be part of an undercover sting operation set up by the FBI, and he was charged with bribery, extortion and threatening a government witness.
"You are talking to the guy who makes the deals," a federal indictment quotes Ford as saying to an FBI agent posing as a dishonest businessman seeking legislative favors.
Jury selection is set for Monday in the former legislator's trial, expected to be the best courtroom show so far in the FBI's statewide corruption investigation, code-named Tennessee Waltz after one of the official state songs.
Ford, 64, is one of five current or former state lawmakers charged in the investigation. He is accused of taking $55,000 in bribes from E-Cycle Management, which supposedly was in the business of buying and reselling used government computers.
Jurors will hear several secretly recorded tapes of Ford's conversations with undercover agents and see at least two video clips showing him stuffing his pockets with cash.
Ford, a Democrat who represented his Memphis district for 31 years, is a member of one of Tennessee's most politically active families. His nephew is Harold Ford Jr., a former congressman and U.S. Senate candidate; his brother is Harold Ford Sr., who represented Memphis in the U.S. House for 22 years.
Ford and his lawyer, Michael Scholl, have refused to discuss defense strategy, but Ford is expected to argue he was a business consultant for E-Cycle who was paid for his legislative advice.
The tapes record Ford helping write proposed legislation that would have given E-Cycle a nearly exclusive shot at buying used computers and other electronic equipment from state agencies and local governments across Tennessee.
"Now you got to be creative," Ford says, boasting about his ability to tailor legislation for his friends.
Ford began working with E-Cycle in 2004 and was indicted the following year. He resigned from the Senate two days later.
He dealt mainly with an FBI agent identified publicly using the undercover name L.C. McNiel.
"What's it going to cost us? I know you like to go first class," McNiel asks Ford on one audio tape.
"Well, generally what I look at expenses, ah, you know, it's always negotiated," Ford says. "Anywhere from three to $5,000 a month."
McNiel is shown on at least two videotapes handing money to Ford. In one recording, sitting across a desk from Ford, McNiel slowly counts out what the government says is $10,000.
McNiel: "You should have 10 there."
Ford stuffs the money in his pockets and says he will be the primary Senate sponsor for E-Cycle's legislation.
Ford is the second lawmaker to go to trial in the Tennessee Waltz scandal.
Two others are awaiting trial.
Overall, the ongoing investigation has led to criminal charges against 11 defendants, including several local officials in Memphis and Chattanooga. Three of the accused have been convicted at trial and four have pleaded guilty.