Waiting for Godot with John Ford

Now out of prison, the flamboyant state senator and scion of Memphis' most prominent political clan probes his chances for a comeback.

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At ease in his East Memphis home last October, John Ford reflects upon his past, present, and future. | photograph by Jackson Baker

And the fact is, some of the fire may  be gone.

Ford says he is well off financially — or well enough, though the income streams of his high-flying years are plainly a thing of the past. He boasts that — unlike fellow Tennessee Waltz felon Roscoe Dixon, white of hair after doing four years of his own — he looks relatively unchanged, and, to be sure, the East Memphis gated community Ford has lived in for the last year and a half seems reasonably posh.

“Man, I’ve got two or three fine women to talk to. I’m a single man,” boasts the once flagrant Lothario, whose juggling of women and households, coupled with a lavish lifestyle, always rendered his financial situation problematic. But the fact is, John Ford has had a rough few years. Falls from grace are not easy.

At the time of his 2005 arrest, he was still a mover and shaker in what had long been a Democratic-Party-controlled legislature. He was a lion of the state Senate, and chair of the General Welfare, Health, and Human Resources Committee, and a recognized man-to-see. Earlier that year, he had come under fire for suspect dealings with out-of-state healthcare agencies which, it was suggested, were paying him to help them obtain state contracts at the same time that his Senate chairmanship gave him substantial oversight over TennCare matters.

The revelation of all this had come about as a result of a typical John Ford over-reach in what was clearly a personal matter. The Senator had gone to court seeking relief on child-support payments to one of his several ex-wives — he was basically supporting families and houses all over Shelby County — and this had the side effect of opening up his personal finances, which led finally to an ethics probe in a Tennessee General Assembly that was caught between a desire to protect one of its own and a need to propitiate mounting public outrage.

Either to cover his tracks or because he honestly thought he was doing nothing wrong, Ford made a modest amendment to his state financial-disclosure form to account for the relationship with the companies and for X amount of otherwise unexplainable income. Called before a bicameral ad hoc ethics committee one day that spring of 2005, he brandished a copy of the form and said righteously, “Look here! It says ‘consultant!’”

There were all kinds of obvious problems with that approach, and these would lead to a federal prosecution in the not-too-distant future, but at the time word was that, in the legislature itself, Ford might get off with some kind of censure — hard cheese, but something the senator could nibble his way through in the long run.

But worse awaited him. One Thursday morning, late in that legislative session of 2005 (“It was the last 10 days, and I’d already done everything I was going to do”), he left the hotel room he always kept in-session (on the 18th floor of Nashville’s downtown Sheraton), went upstairs to the hotel’s 22nd floor hospitality room (where he breakfasted, as usual, on some orange juice and a fruit bowl), and boarded the elevator, along with Senate colleague Joe Armstrong of Knoxville, intending to go downstairs, exit the Sheraton for a brief appearance at that week’s climactic Senate floor session, and prepare for a quick getaway to Memphis.

The trip home, and a few engagements he had waiting in Memphis, were all he had on his mind as the elevator stopped again on his floor, the 18th. When the doors opened, “two guys in suits, one white, one black” got on. “They didn’t say a word, just moved in and made a point of standing behind us on the elevator. They didn’t say a word. It was odd.”

When the elevator floor opened on the lobby floor, however, one of the men finally spoke. “You’re John Ford?” When he nodded, the man said, with formal politeness, “Can we talk to you?”

Ford shook his head. “I’m busy,” he said. “I don’t really have time to talk.”

That brought the boom down quickly. As Ford recalls, “the guy said, ‘We have a warrant for your arrest,’ and he showed me a paper or something. I told him, ‘I’ve got to pay my hotel bill. I can’t leave without paying.’ I had my clothes already packed and put in my SUV.”

Unlike most legislative matters, though, this was a non-negotiable situation, and Ford had to comply. Looking around in the lobby, he saw Lois DeBerry, the venerable and beloved Memphis state representative, now deceased, and he entrusted his car keys to her for safekeeping.

John Ford was not the only person shuffled off in federal custody that morning. There were six more, including Memphis Senate colleagues Dixon and Katherine Bowers. It was the final closing of the trap for what had been a two-year FBI sting carried out by agents posing as lobbyists for a phony computer company that was willing to shell out wads of cash — an alleged $55,000 in Ford’s case — on behalf of a bill to facilitate resale of used computers in worldwide markets.

And this time no claim of being a mere “consultant” was going to do the trick — not in the face of the abundant audio and video evidence the wired agents were going to produce in court.


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