FBI informant says Ford threatened to kill him

An FBI informant testified Wednesday that an influential former state senator at the center of a public corruption investigation threatened to kill him after growing suspicious of him.

John Ford watched as FBI informant Tim Willis told the jury the former senator threatened to kill him. The jury then listened to a taped meeting between the two men.

Ford: "Well, now let me ask you a question. You ain't workin' for none of them mother_____?"

Willis: Naw. (laughs)

Ford: If you are, just tell me. I got a gun.

Willis testified that Ford told him he'd shoot him dead and then tell his wife he'd run off with another woman.

"Did you really want to kill him? asked Reporter Jason Miles after court Wednesday. "Don't make me laugh," replied Ford.

Ford wasn't willing to talk about the rest of the tape. But clearly, during his meeting with Willis in February of 2005, Ford was suspicious. He was skeptical not only of Willis, but of E-Cycle and the undercover agent with whom he had dealt.

Ford: "Well, just tell me about L.C. Ah, is he legit or, or, or ah what? He don't walk around with video cameras in the office or guns on him or anything like that?

Ford says on the tape he was warned to be wary by three people, including fellow senator Roscoe Dixon, who was convicted of accepting bribes of his own.

Ford: "Yea, the FBI has a lot of shell companies too. That's what I'm afraid of. See, I'm familiar with how they work."

But maybe he was not familiar soon enough. By the time that conversation was recorded, the feds say John Ford was already on the take and had already pocketed most of bribe money he's accused of accepting.

Tim Willis continues his testimony Thursday.

Willis became an informant to avoid facing charges of lying to a federal grand jury during a previous investigation of contract fraud at the juvenile court in Memphis.

He has a conviction for federal credit card fraud in Mississippi.

The FBI used Willis to introduce undercover agents to state and local officials from Memphis, where he had worked in several political campaigns.

Also on Wednesday, an undercover FBI agent testified that lying was part of his job as he investigated Ford.

Ford's lawyer, Michael Scholl, repeatedly asked agent L.C. McNiel whether he lied in portraying himself to Ford and others as a successful music producer and executive for E-Cycle.

McNiel was the lead agent dealing with Ford. He met with Ford often for more than a year and pretended to befriend him.

Prosecutors have played clips from dozens of secretly recorded audio and video tapes on which Ford promised to help E-Cycle or could be seen taking stacks of cash from McNiel.

Undercover tapes show Ford trusted McNiel and even offered to share a girlfriend with him, saying on one recording, "What's mine is yours."

Ford, a part-time lawmaker and full-time business consultant, thought he was drawing legitimate payments for his legislative advice, according to his lawyer.

On one of two trips to Miami during which Ford and McNiel partied together, they stopped off at the Florida home of the senator's brother, former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr. of Memphis.

John Ford jokes with his brother and McNiel that E-Cycle was not paying him enough.

"Hey look, y'all have to increase my consulting fee to about $30,000 a month," John Ford said.

McNiel has testified that E-Cycle paid Ford $5,000 a month to write and sponsor the company's proposed legislation.

Ford, 64, is one of five current or former state lawmakers charged with taking bribes from agents posing as company executives.

The Memphis Democrat spent 31 years in the Legislature and resigned in May 2005 shortly after his indictment on the E-Cycle charges.

He also faces unrelated federal charges in Nashville on accusations of taking $800,000 in improper payments from state contractors.

Overall, the Tennessee Waltz investigation has led to indictments against 11 defendants, including several local officials in Memphis and Chattanooga.

One other lawmaker, former Sen. Roscoe Dixon, D-Memphis, has been to trial. He was convicted in November and sentenced to five years in prison. Former Rep. Chris Newton, R-Cleveland, pleaded guilty to bribery and served a nine-month sentence. Sen. Ward Crutchfield, D-Chattanooga, and former Sen. Kathryn Bowers, D-Memphis, are awaiting trials.

Click here to email Jason Miles.