Four lawmakers, one ex-lawmaker arrested amid bribery investigation - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Four lawmakers, one ex-lawmaker arrested amid bribery investigation

Four Tennessee lawmakers, a former lawmaker and two others were indicted Thursday amid a federal bribery investigation into the business dealings of a state senator from a powerful Memphis political family, officials said. That senator, John Ford, also is charged with witness intimidation, which included telling an undercover agent that "if he caught someone trying to set him up he would shoot that person, kill them, so there would be no witnesses," the indictment says. The others charged are Sens. Kathryn Bowers and Ward Crutchfield; state Rep. Chris Newton; and former state Sen. Roscoe Dixon, who is now a top aide to the Shelby County mayor. Newton is a Republican and the others are Democrats. All are charged with taking bribes from undercover federal investigators to influence legislation concerning a bogus company set up by the FBI called E-Cycle Management Inc. The company purported to be a recycler of outdated electronic equipment. U.S. Attorney Terrell Harris said in Memphis that the investigation has been under way for two years after authorities got an anonymous complaint alleging improper conduct by lawmakers. The undercover operation was dubbed "Tennessee Waltz." "Public corruption is a high priority," Harris said. "Our citizens have a right to know government is not for sale." Also charged were Barry Myers and Charles Love. Myers couldn't immediately be identified. Love is a registered lobbyist and a member of the Hamilton County School Board in Chattanooga. The indictment lists a series of payments to Ford totaling $55,000. It says the payoffs began last year and continued this year even as the General Assembly debated and passed laws making it a crime for public officials to take private money to influence government contracts or to engage in influence peddling. Ford and the other indicted lawmakers all voted for the bill, which is now law.

The indictment says Dixon and Myers received $9,500, Bowers and Myers received $11,500, Crutchfield and Love received $12,000, and Newton and Love received $4,500. "We hope it will bring back some of the trust back to state government," Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn said. Bowers, Crutchfield and Newton were arrested before the legislature began Thursday's sessions. They were led into a Nashville courtroom about midday in handcuffs, and a federal magistrate released them on their own recognizance. Bowers, looking tired in a wrinkled lime green suit, declined to talk to reporters about the six charges against her. "I guess I'm feeling as well as could be expected," she said. If convicted, she faces up a maximum penalty of 110 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine. Newton, wearing a blue polo shirt and slacks without a belt, smiled as he glanced around the courtroom. He and Crutchfield are both named in two counts, punishable by up to 25 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Neither commented on the charges. Ford faces a total of 60 years in prison and a $1.25 million fine if convicted on all five charges; Myers faces a total of 200 years and a $2.75 million fine if convicted on 11 charges; and Dixon could get 90 years in prison and pay a $1.25 million fine if convicted on all five charges. Federal sentencing guidelines would likely result in much lighter sentences. The indictment quotes statements Ford made while dealing with a representative of E-Cycle. When told on April 19, 2004, that making changes to some of his legislation would help the company, the senator replied, "You are talking to the guy that makes the deals."

The indictment also says that Ford told the company in July his assistance would cost $3,000 to $5,000 per month. When asked on Nov. 11 if he needed anything, Ford said, "Yeah, send me a little money." The arrests happened as the Tennessee General Assembly was trying to wrap up debate on the state budget and adjourn the session by Friday. Gov. Phil Bredesen said he was briefed on the investigation by FBI and TBI agents early in the day. He said he had known an investigation was under way, but didn't know - and didn't want to know - most of the details. "Today is a sad day on many levels," Bredesen said. "I think all of us feel that the important thing to do is keep a steady hand." He told lawmakers he didn't expect any more government officials would be arrested in the case. "It's a sad day for the state of Tennessee. It's a sad day for the Legislature," said Senate Speaker Pro Tem Micheal Williams, R-Maynardville. The arrests Thursday marked the biggest corruption indictments in Tennessee since the Rocky Top investigation of 1990. In that probe, federal and state investigation found bingo operators who used state charters of legitimate Tennessee charities to run gambling operations. It led to several indictments and suicides by two public officials, including the secretary of state at the time, Gentry Crowell. Newton and Bowers previously said they were interviewed earlier this month by FBI agents about Ford. Newton said he was asked about Ford's dealings with TennCare contractors, including a contract worth $429,000 with Doral Dental, and about legislation he had sponsored or co-sponsored with Ford, including one bill that would allow companies to buy and sell used electronic equipment from the state. During the close of the session on Wednesday, Newton asked to withdraw the bill from the House. The bill would have required state government to route surplus computer and electronic equipment to local schools districts. It also required that any equipment the schools didn't need be disposed of by a qualified electronic recycling company.

Love, a registered lobbyist and principal in Charles Love & Associates in Chattanooga, said last week that he lobbied legislators on behalf of E-Cycle Management. Sponsors of the legislation were Ford, Bowers, Newton, Crutchfield and six other lawmakers - Rep. Ulysses Jones, D-Memphis; Rep. Charles M. Sargent, R-Franklin; Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis; Rep. Paul Stanley, R-Germantown; Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville; and Sen. Jeff Miller, R-Cleveland. Armstrong said he never voted on the bill or had it come through his committees. "I knew the guy (Love) who was pushing the bill. He told me that he had involvement with the company. He was going around getting signatures on the bill. I didn't know what the company was because it never did come out in the bill," he said. "The bill just said they take surplus equipment, clean it up and sell it, rather the state taking it and putting it in a warehouse and disposing it. They looked at it as hazardous waste, you can't just throw it in a landfill." --- Associated Press writers Woody Baird in Memphis, Lucas L. Johnson II and Colin Fly in Nashville and Bill Poovey in Chattanooga contributed to this report.

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

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