The state Registry of Election Finance fined Sen. John Ford $10,000 Wednesday for spending campaign money on his daughter's wedding. A majority of the election finance board didn't buy the Memphis Democrat's explanation that it's common for Tennessee lawmakers to use campaign money on such expenditures. On a 4-3 vote, the board found him guilty of fraudulent use of campaign funds. Ford told the board in an affidavit that he thought it was legal to spend $15,000 on his daughter's wedding because roughly one-third of the 350 guests lived in his Senate district. His statement said that campaign money paid for roughly one-sixth of a reception at Memphis' elegant Peabody Hotel. By those calculations, the entire cost of the reception would have run to nearly $100,000.
This marks the first official sanction against Ford in a recent swarm of ethical allegations. Ford did not attend the hearing in person, and later he would not comment on the fine. One of Ford's lawyers, Ed Yarbrough, said he would have to talk to his client before appealing the decision. Yarbrough said it might be simpler to "pay it and move on." The $10,000 penalty was the maximum the board could charge Ford for one instance of inappropriate campaign spending, registry Executive Director Drew Rawlins said. He said it was the biggest fine of its kind that he could recall. The board brushed aside Ford's defense, presented to them as a written affidavit. Board member Karen Dunavant of Memphis said it was ridiculous to mount a defense by claiming "that everybody does it." In his statement, Ford said he used campaign money on the 2003 wedding "in part, because I was aware other public officials had used campaign funds to finance a wedding anniversary or purchase automobiles for family members when those items were being used, in part, for campaign purposes." Yarbrough said he would not tell the board which other lawmakers Ford was referring to because he couldn't reveal "client confidences." Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Ron Ramsey said it's "laughable" that Ford claimed other lawmakers do the same thing. "There's no one that I know that has done that," said the Blountville Republican. Ramsey, who used political donations to buy a used car for campaign travel, said Ford was comparing "apples and oranges" by mentioning automobile purchases as part of the defense. Yarbrough told the election finance board that they believed the expenditures, listed on campaign finance forms, were legal "based on the letter of the law." He also disputed the finding of fraud, saying Ford was never told the board was investigating fraud. The Nashville attorney said fraud requires proof of deception. He said Ford listed the expenditures on campaign filings and never tried to hide them. "An expenditure that's not for political purposes can be made inadvertently; it can be made because your judgment was simply flawed," he said. "Fraud is actual intent to commit an offense. "We were not here to defend that, and yet that's what we were found guilty of." Board member William Long Jr. agreed with the defense and voted against the fine, saying he was "troubled" by the way the committee was moving on the allegation. Yarbrough said Ford came into the hearing facing a mountain of negative press clippings and a board that seemed intent on finding him guilty. "Some of the board members seemed to have their mind made up before today," he said. Yarbrough said his client is facing more scrutiny than anyone else in the state, and said Ford is being targeted because he "has become a lightning rod of sorts for issues of this kind."
The hearing was separate from other ethical complaints against Ford. He's also being investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee, various state agencies and a Memphis grand jury regarding his business dealings with TennCare, the state's expanded Medicaid program. Ramsey said the legislative ethics panel may move quickly on the registry's finding and hold a hearing to see if the violation also broke Senate ethics rules. The committee could recommend that Ford be kicked out of the General Assembly. The board members who voted for the fine were Dunavant, George Harding of Lebanon, Lee Anne Murray of Nashville and Marian Ott of Nashville. Voting no with Long were Darlene McNeece of Loudon and John McClarty of Chattanooga. "Obviously if he had this to do over again he might have done a few things differently, but he does believe he did comply with the strict letter of the campaign laws," Yarbrough said.