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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John Ford’s daughter, Kemba, boasted of her father’s legacy in her unsuccessful campaign for state office last fall.

Ford’s fateful elevator encounter would be followed by his two federal trials, one for the Tennessee Waltz sting, another for official corruption in not disclosing almost a million dollars the senator had received from several  out-of-state providers of health and dental services who had enlisted his services in securing TennCare contracts.

Following his Tennessee Waltz conviction in Memphis in 2007, Ford was tried on the corruption charges in a Nashville trial that culminated in 2008. The two offenses together netted the former freewheeling solon a total of 19 years imprisonment, but 14 of those fell away in 2011, when the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the Nashville charges in finding, essentially, that Ford’s alleged offenses, whatever their deviations from state requirements, were not covered by federal statute.

The bottom line of that reversal was Ford’s release in August 2012 from the close-to-home prison venue in Yazoo City where he’d done most of his five years, the assignment to which owed much to the intercession on his behalf by 9th District Congressman and former state Senate colleague Steve Cohen.

His description of the experience? “One word: horrible,” was what he said when we talked about it back in October. Especially for someone as famously hedonistic as himself. “Food was horrible, not being with a lady was horrible, not being in a sanitary place was horrible. Bunking with another person was horrible.”

Not that he was mistreated. “It wasn’t hard time. I was in a dormitory, not a cell. It was just the time being away from family.”

He would often think about all the years spent driving to and from Nashville, a journey of 200-odd miles and three hours more or less (although Ford, a serial speeder, was famous for making the somewhat monotonous trip as much “less” as possible). “While you’re driving, you may get a little tired. But you get where you’re going, and then you can do this and that. But when you’re incarcerated you can’t do anything.”

Talking about driving reminds him of the several transfers from venue to venue before he finally landed at Yazoo City. “A car or a plane or whatever it is, and they have you handcuffed. It’s horrible.

“That’s the best way to describe it. The people back home, even if they don’t have very much money and have to eat at McDonald’s, for example, at least they’re free. If you’re in prison, McDonald’s hamburger and French fries could seem like caviar, you understand.

“It’s that you don’t have that freedom.” When he was being driven back and forth while being transferred, said Ford, even the random glimpses he got of life on the highway, however mundane — “trees, cars, people, buildings” — were all tokens of a lost Eden. “That’s why I like to go driving kind of aimlessly now, just wander around town, just to look at the trees and see how beautiful they are.”

In prison, Ford said, “I just stayed out of the way, had no trouble. I watched the TV news every day. I read the Wall Street Journal, The Commercial Appeal, and USA Today. They had all those in the library.” And he had ample time to ponder his circumstances, retrying his own case mentally.

“I used to think to myself, ‘Hell, if you’re in jail, you must be in for a reason, you must have done something.’” But he would always conclude: “That ain’t the case. All you gotta do is look at TV and read the newspaper. “

There, he said, you would find case after case of old convictions being reversed — due to DNA samples, new evidence, what-have-you. And there was the issue of entrapment. The FBI agent who laid the sting on Ford during Tennessee Waltz was a savvy, jive-talking African American calling himself “L.C. McNeill,” a nom de guerre for his role of computer lobbyist with a roll of ready cash.

“He claimed to be connected with a music company, said he had his own company, making videos.” In retrospect, Ford seemed genuinely offended by the imposture. “Take a person: If you’re dishonest, you’re dishonest. If you’re honest, you’re honest.”

As for the video shown during his Memphis trial and endlessly repeated on TV and in online takes, like the notorious one of “McNeill” counting out hundred-dollar bills — the then senator was accused of taking a grand total of $55,000 for his services in getting the bogus computer company’s bill passed — Ford professed incomprehension. “There’s nothing illegal about that, about somebody counting out money and giving it to you. What makes it illegal is if they’re talking about a bill or something like that.”

To make the proverbial long story short, Ford seems to be maintaining that, as he puts it, “when they’re talking about one thing, they give you the money because of work on something else.”

Suffice it to say that neither judge nor jury nor the media pack covering the Memphis trial saw things quite the way he did.


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