Democrat defends Senate's handling of Ford ethics charges

A leading Democrat panned criticism that the state Senate isn't moving quickly enough to probe ethics charges against Sen. John Ford of Memphis. Democratic caucus chairman Sen. Joe Haynes said the Senate may ultimately face "the full responsibility on making the determination of whether Sen. Ford continues to serve or not." Two ethics charges have been filed this week against Ford, who faces accusations that he improperly took money from a TennCare subcontractor and that he doesn't live in the district he represents. Haynes, who also sits on the Senate Ethics Committee, said lawmakers have to move judiciously and consider every aspect of a case that possibly could result in Ford's removal from the Senate. "We are all very concerned and take very seriously the complaint that has been filed," Haynes said. Haynes said he's been called at home over the case and stopped at the store by people wanting the Senate to do something. "People want to discuss it, people are concerned about it, they have the right to be concerned about it," he said. "But we can't be herded into doing something like they used to do in the old Wild West, and lynching somebody on the courthouse steps."

The Senate Ethics Committee has not yet decided that the two complaints have probable cause for a larger probe. One, filed Monday by Clarksville resident Barry Schmittou, seeks action against Ford for taking $237,000 from a TennCare subcontractor. Another filed Tuesday by State GOP Chairman Bob Davis asks the committee to sort out whether or not Ford can legally represent his district, citing Ford's testimony during a child-support dispute that he maintains two homes outside his district with two different families. The recent trouble started with a child-support dispute with a former employee. That case made headlines when Ford tried to reduce the amount of child support he pays based on a law he ushered through the Legislature last year. His testimony that he lives in two residences with two different families - both outside his Senate District 29 - cast doubt on whether he actually can serve in that district. Critics have said the more recent accusation that Ford profited from business ties with a TennCare subcontractor, without reporting it on financial disclosure forms, may prove the most damaging. That relationship has drawn the interest of both the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the TennCare Bureau. And separately, the Registry of Election Finance has been asked to look into accusations that Ford spent campaign money on personal expenses. Ford, who has refused to publicly discuss the allegations, did not return a call seeking comment Thursday. Ford last faced an ethics charge in 1991, when lawmakers considered removing his as a committee chair while he was the focus of a felony gun charge. He was cleared on a 14-13 vote on the Senate floor after the Ethics Committee deadlocked on the issue. He was eventually cleared on the criminal charges, too.

Ford, who last ran unopposed in 2002 for his District 29 seat, faces re-election in 2006. He has been re-elected every time since the 1970s.

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