Ford used campaign money to pay for wedding, records show

Sen. John Ford has used campaign money to pay for a wedding and thousands of dollars in payments to the mothers of his children, filings show. The Memphis Democrat has been the focus of scrutiny recently over a child support fight that raised questions about whether he lives in the district he represents and whether he failed to disclose more than $200,000 of income from a TennCare subcontractor. Now that subcontractor, the governmental affairs company Managed Care Services Group and chief executive Ronald R. Dobbins, have been fired. A Doral Dental spokesman said the firm fired Dobbins both "in light of some of the information that's been coming out" and specifically after learning Dobbins is not a registered lobbyist in Tennessee. Doral Dental landed an exclusive, $6.3 million contract to provide dental coverage to about 620,000 poor and uninsured children through the state's publicly funded TennCare program. Spokesman Michael A. Pflughoeft said Doral Dental had no independent knowledge of involvement by Ford in Managed Care Services Group. An examination by WTVF-TV of Ford's campaign financial disclosures to the state shows thousands of dollars in questionable spending. Ford, who has testified during a child support hearing that he maintains two different homes with two different families, has been making payments of out of campaign money to the women who head those households and to a third woman challenging him on the child support. The Nashville TV station also reported that Ford used campaign money to pay for portions of his daughter's wedding, including the cake, video and a singer. Almost $11,000 from political contributors also was paid to Karen Michelle Snell, a former Ford assistant who was once involved in a brawl with his ex-wife.

Ford has consistently declined to talk to reporters this week about the mounting allegations and the possibility of an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee. "It's very clear about the personal use of campaign funds - the law specifically says you cannot use campaign funds for personal benefit," said Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. The records show that in the last two years girlfriend Connie Matthews, mother of two of Ford's children, was paid $18,400 for "professional services." "It could be anything," Rawlins said of the payments. "It could be work done on his campaign. It could be that she worked in his district." Ex-wife Tamara Mitchell Ford, mother of three of Ford's children, received $2,450 in 2004, and $3,000 went to adult daughters Kemba and Autumn Ford in 2003-2004. And a "D Smith" of Raleigh, North Carolina was paid $400 in 2003. Ford pays child support to a Dana Smith in Raleigh. The reports also show that two years ago, when one of the senator's daughters got married, Ford paid a number of expenses out of campaign money. The campaign paid $9,000 to Memphis's elegant Peabody Hotel for "reception, professional services" and "entertainment." Another $1,500 went to Larry Dodson from the Memphis group the Barkays for "entertainment expense." And thousands more went to companies that handle wedding videos, flowers and other decorations. Rawlins says he "can't think of any," justification for a campaign to pay for a wedding. "It's hard to know if something was personal or not personal when somebody's doing an expenditure," Rawlins said. "It could go either way." The Registry of Election Finance, which regulates campaign spending, said it will investigate if someone files a sworn complaint against Ford.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)