"John Ford did not take bribes," attorney tells jury in opening statements

Attorneys debate potential alternate (Bobby Spillman)
Attorneys debate potential alternate (Bobby Spillman)
Media watching events in court on three viewing screens (Bobby Spillman)
Media watching events in court on three viewing screens (Bobby Spillman)

Moving efficiently through the end of jury selection, U.S. District Judge Daniel Breen instructed attorneys to launch into opening statements with little pause.

Each took about 20 minutes to make their respective cases to jurors, freshly trained in courtroom protocol and etiquette.

In April of 2004, at Morton's Restaurant in Nashville, John Ford "was a man who knew what he wanted," said prosecutor Tim DiScenza in his opening statement.

He is explaining how he was to meet someone from a company called E-Cycle which, like Ford, wanted to make a great deal of money in Tennessee.

E-Cycle, he says, wanted to get legislation passed so that they could do business. "John Ford - then Senator John Ford - saw a great opportunity. And that opportunity was to sell his office," said DiScenza.

The prosecutor who has thus far secured convictions against other Waltz defendants Roscoe Dixon and Calvin Williams went on to describe how Ford was willing to accept $55,000 in cash in exchange for help moving legislation through Nashville.

He told jurors they would have a unique opportunity to act as witnesses by watching the many hours of documentary evidence they would present.

"Three witnesses. Case done. As simple as that," countered Mike Scholl, suggesting that that was all the government was going to present.

That's how he began his opening statement.

"Ladies and gentlemen, John Ford did not take any bribes," he said dramatically. "What the proof in this case is going to show you is that the United States Government was going to make sure that John Ford is sitting in that seat no matter what."

Scholl methodically used his opening statement to discredit two primary witnesses, an FBI agent who - undercover - was known as L.C. McNeil, an executive with FBI dummy company E-Cycle who often boasted about his other business as a top-dollar music producer and Tim Willis, a local political player trying to avoid his own criminal charges as an informant.

"This case begins back in July of 2004 on a multi-million dollar yacht paid for by the U.S. government, with first class tickets furnished and paid for by the U.S. Government," he said, adding the government paid for trips, cars and meals.

"The U.S. Government was looking for John Ford," he said.

Scholl suggested that Ford's defense would be built on McNeil's claims of a music background.

"Movies and music," he said.  "In 2004, what you're going to hear from this case is that movies and music is a huge deal during this time," he said. [The FBI] invited [Ford] to Miami - not to the computer convention for E-Cycle, he says - but for the American Black Film Festival, suggesting that most of the interactions revolved around entertainment.

Finally, Scholl suggested to the jury that most of the conversations between Ford and undercover agents and informants were omitted from evidence and that the omitted tapes demonstrate how aggressively the government worked to lure Ford.

The opening statements followed a day and a half of jury selection which, for much of today, appeared stuck on the selection of a final alternate.

In the end, the parties selected two black men and two black women to sit as alternates.

The 12 members of the primary jury are mostly white and mostly female.

The presentation of evidence and witnesses begins Wedneday morning at 9:30 am.

Here is the demographic breakdown of the newly empaneled jury:

8 women
4 men

8 white
4 black


2 black men
2 black women

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In the nearly two years since the original Tennessee Waltz indictments were handed up, Tennesseans have watched on as three of the accused have faced trial and ultimately conviction.  Five others have pleaded guilty to the corruption charges levied against them.

Now, the man widely considered to be the biggest fish caught in this particular federal net faces trial, a wealth of video and audio evidence and a media circus expected to dwarf any and all.

The crowd of would-be spectators is expected to be so significant for John Ford's corruption trial, the Judge in the case, former federal magistrate Daniel Breen, has reportedly requested a second room, a viewing room, be set up for trial-watchers.

In fact, this trial, set to begin Monday, April 9th, is expected to be a substantial affair, lasting twice as long as the trial that sought and saw the conviction of co-defendant and longtime friend Roscoe Dixon.  Prosecutors have indicated they could be in court for as long as a month.

John Ford is charged with bribery and extortion for accepting $55,000 in "cash bribes" between August 2004 and April 2005 in exchange for his influence in passing legislation that favored a dummy company set up by the FBI.

He is also charged with three counts of witness tampering.  The indictment claims Ford threatened to "shoot" individuals working with the FBI.

Video and audiotaped recordings purport to demonstrate Ford's quid pro quo tendency.  Prosecutors will have to prove that - among other things - Ford was inclined to participate in arrangements or exchanges such as these and that he wasn't "entrapped" by over-zealous investigators.

The "sting" involved the advent of a fake company, E-Cycle Inc., which claimed to be in the business of recycling old computer equipment by shipping it overseas.  The undercover agents gained access to state lawmakers, wined and dined them and offered them money to help usher favorable legislation through the various chambers of state government.

E-Cycle executives, really current and former FBI agents working undercover, were looking for an easy-in to a major state contract.

In the case of Dixon, who went to trial and was convicted last year, trial-watchers and jurors were exposed to measurable bragging and posturing by Dixon and others, eager to demonstrate their virility in the state legislature.

The Ford trial is expected to reveal the same evidence.

It will also likely further reveal the extent to which undercover informant Tim Willis, a former political player in his own right, was offered privileged status by the government in exchange for his cooperation and orchestration of the sting.  Willis was essentially charged with putting people together and played the role of consultant for sham company E-Cycle.

An embattled small-fry facing sentencing on identity theft charges himself, Willis was offered the opportunity to help the government snag willing lawmakers and he pounced, agreeing to himself wear a wire and lead potential defendants to his "office" where unbeknownst to them, they were being video-taped.

During some of the reporting leading up to this trial, Action News 5 broke the story about Tim Willis' film "Street Life," a separate endeavor in which he was apparently engaged during the outplay of the Tennessee Waltz sting.  Willis clearly used some of the E-Cycle offices as sets for the filming of his movie. 

In interviews, Ford's lawyer and other Waltz defense attorneys indicated defendants were aware Willis was making a movie and that possible defense strategies might include claims they believed they were acting when they were caught on tape taking money.