Joseph Lee, Edmund Ford indicted; Lee calls indictments "ridiculous"

David Kustoff, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, at Wednesday's press conference.
David Kustoff, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, at Wednesday's press conference.

Associated Press Writer

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - City Councilman Edmund Ford and Memphis' former utility chief were indicted on federal bribery charges Wednesday, accused of working together to keep Ford from having to pay utility bills totaling more than $10,000.

A scandal over Ford's unpaid bills led to Joseph Lee's resignation in May from his $215,000-a-year job as chief executive of Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, the city's publicly owned utility company.

The scandal has also become part of the community debate over Mayor Willie Herenton's bid for re-election in October. Herenton, who appointed Lee, is running for an unprecedented fifth consecutive four-year term.

"This whole thing is ridiculous," Lee told news reporters after a brief court appearance at which he was released without bond. "I'm a law-abiding citizen."

The grand jury charges contend Lee kept MLGW from cutting off Ford's utilities in return for Ford's support on the City Council and Ford provided that support in exchange for having his utilities left on.

The charges carry maximum sentences of 20 years in prison and fines up to $250,000, though federal guidelines would call for much lighter punishment upon conviction of first-time offenders.

Ford backed Lee's appointment in 2004 and, until recently, was head of the council's committee that oversees the utility's operations.

The charges say Ford had a long history of falling behind on utility bills for his private business, E.H. Ford Mortuary, and at times had his services cut off by MGLW.

But after Lee took over as head of the utility, Ford continued receiving services, with no cutoffs, despite amassing more unpaid bills.

"Lee, directly or indirectly, instructed MLG&W employees not to cut off Ford's utilities services even though Ford ... repeatedly breached promises to make payments on his bills," the charges say.

The charges against both Lee and Ford were added to a federal indictment filed against Ford in December. Ford remained free without bond.

Charges in the original indictment, which are unrelated to MLGW, accuse Ford of taking payoffs for helping get City Council approval for a real estate project.

The grand jury also indicted Dennis Churchwell, Ford's mortuary landlord, on a perjury charge.

Churchwell is accused of lying about forgiving rent owed by Ford in exchange for his help in getting a special-use permit from the City Council for another piece of property. That charge carries a maximum punishment of five years in prison.

Ford is the brother of former state Sen. John Ford, who was convicted earlier this year and awaits sentencing on unrelated federal bribery charges in the Tennessee Waltz investigation.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

You can watch the raw video of this afternoon's press conference, as well as a fiery interview with Joseph Lee and attorney Robert Spence, in the video player to the right of this story.

Click here to read the indictment against Edmund Ford and Joseph Lee. (Adobe Reader required)

Click here to read the indictment against Dennis Churchwell.