Subcommittee sees probable cause for ethics investigation of Ford

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The state Senate Ethics Subcommittee decided Wednesday there is probable cause for an ethics investigation into the business dealings of Sen. John Ford, but the Memphis Democrat said he isn't concerned.

"They didn't come back with anything but one omission that will be cleared up next week and I will be cleared," Ford said as he left the Senate session.

"They're not talking about anything but that; I know what they're talking about." At the heart of the issue is that Ford did not report more than $230,000 in consulting income on financial disclosure forms. But the subcommittee did not find probable cause on two other complaints against Ford. Next week the full Senate Ethics Committee, in its first investigation since 1996, will look into allegations that Ford had improper business ties to a TennCare subcontractor, Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Ron Ramsey said.

"Assuming they adopt the report, he will have 20 days to respond to the full committee where we'll make a recommendation to the full Senate," he said. "It is a tough job right now to stand in judgment of one of your peers, but we are taking it seriously, we have a charge to do, we are going to make sure we carry it through."

Ford's partnership with Ronald R. Dobbins, a consultant with TennCare contractor Doral Dental, also is apparently being investigated by federal prosecutors in Memphis. Dobbins' company, Managed Care Services Group, was paid $1.1 million by Doral Dental to promote its bid to become TennCare's administrator for dental services.

Ford's tax records from 2002 and 2003 show he received $237,000 from a consulting partnership with Dobbins. "The Senate Ethics Subcommittee finds probable cause to believe that this source of 2002 income was not reported on Senator Ford's 2003 statement filed with the clerk and therefore was in violation of the filing requirements," the report states.

Ford's lawyers have defended his actions with Doral Dental. "The law in Tennessee says you can be a consultant," lawyer Martin A. Grusin told The Commercial Appeal newspaper.

"If they don't want that to happen, they're going to have to pass a law that says if you're in the Legislature you can't have outside employment." Grusin said Ford's role in the partnership was to promote Doral Dental in other states looking for a dental services administrator.

The lawyer said Ford did not influence TennCare's decision to select Doral Dental. Doral terminated its relationship with Managed Care Services Group soon after news reports revealed Ford's connection to the company. The subcommittee also looked at two other complaints against Ford. It did not find probable cause that Ford broke Senate ethics rules by allegedly using campaign funds to pay for expenses involving his daughter's wedding. And they said it would be up to the full Senate to determine whether Ford is violating Senate rules by living outside the district he represents. Subcommittee members Doug Henry, D-Nashville, and Curtis Person, R-Memphis, declined comment on the report. Separately, Ford's ties to the TennCare consultant also are the subject of a criminal probe.

A federal grand jury in Memphis is scheduled to meet later this month after requesting information about Ford's business dealings. At the same time, TennCare officials are probing Ford's relationship with Doral. The company has said it's doing its own internal investigation into the matter. Other complaints that Ford misspent campaign money for personal reasons are pending before state authorities.

Ford last faced an ethics charge in 1991, when lawmakers considered removing him 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 of the criminal charges.

--- Associated Press Writer Matt Gouras contributed to this report.

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