Congressman Cleared of Corruption Charges
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) _ Rep. Harold Ford praised God and a federal jury Friday after he was acquitted of charges he took payoffs from two former bankers and political allies.
The Tennessee Democrat had been charged with 18 counts of conspiracy, bank and mail fraud. Ford, 47, was accused of taking bogus loans from convicted former Tennessee bankers Jake and C.H. Butcher Jr.
The congressman’s two co-defendants, former Butcher lawyers Douglas Beaty and Karl Schledwitz, also were acquitted. They had been charged with conspiracy to commit bank fraud and mail fraud. The U.S. District Court trial began March 1.
Ford, Tennessee’s only black member of Congress, accused prosecutors of being racists and Republican Party lackeys. They denied those allegations.
″We had good citizens on this jury who didn’t fall for what the government was giving out. ... I am so happy for everybody,″ Ford said during a victory party in his crowded, noisy office.
The jury of 11 whites and one black picked to hear his second trial was bused in from largely rural, predominantly white counties north of Memphis.
Speaking of himself in the third person, Ford said, ″The Lord knew that he was not guilty.″
The Rev. Melvin Charles Smith, Ford’s pastor, joined the congressman in praising God for the acquittal. ″The days have been dark. The nights have been long. But you have been with us,″ Smith said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Humble, one of Ford’s two prosecutors, said the government accepted the verdict, ″like we do in any case.″
″We just ask that justice be done,″ Humble said.
Ford had shown no emotion as the jury’s foreman began reading the verdict count by count. But at count 17, Ford raised his left hand to his face to cover his eyes and slumped slightly in his chair.
After the jury was dismissed, Ford’s son, Harold Jr., rushed up, hugged his father and kissed him on the cheek. Ford had tears in his eyes.
Two jurors, both white, interviewed after the trial said the government simply failed to make its case.
″We set three men free that were falsely accused,″ said juror Danny Montgomery of McNairy County. ″The key point in deciding the verdict was the lack of evidence.″
Juror Jerre Moore, of Gibson County, agreed.
″Everything they presented, we went through one piece at a time. There just wasn’t enough evidence,″ Moore said.
Later in the evening, Ford entertained about 400 supporters at a champagne party in a hotel ballroom just a few blocks from the courthouse.
″This is truly a Good Friday. I came to celebrate,″ said one of the partygoers, Mamie Williams.
Ford, an 18-year congressman, represents a predominantly black city and the region’s largest urban center. He has been re-elected three times since his 1987 indictment.
His first trial, in 1990, ended in a mistrial when a Memphis jury of eight blacks and four whites failed to reach a verdict.
The federal court in Memphis ordered an out-of-town jury, citing Ford’s notoriety and the extensive news coverage surrounding his first trial. Ford then asked a judge for a jury picked in Memphis, hoping that more of the jurors would be blacks.
The Justice Department, undergoing transition to a Democratic administration, took the unusual step of siding with Ford in that request, leading U.S. Attorney Ed Bryant of Memphis, a Republican appointee, to resign.
But federal Judge Jerome Turner turned down Ford’s request, as did an appeals court.
Ford and the Butchers have been friends and allies since the 1970s. Jake Butcher ran unsuccessfully for governor as a Democrat with Ford’s backing in 1974 and 1978.
The Butchers’ string of banks, once the largest in Tennessee, failed in 1983, and the Butcher brothers went to prison for fraud. Neither testified at Ford’s trials.
Ford’s indictment listed Butcher loans, between 1976 and 1982, totaling $1.2 million to the congressman or his family business in Memphis, the N.J. Ford & Sons Funeral Parlor. Ford contended those debts totaled less than $600,000 and were settled after his indictment.
Trial witnesses said many of Ford’s loans were shifted from bank to bank with later debts covering earlier ones and the interest owed on them. Witnesses outlined $450,000 in Butcher debts that Ford didn’t repay.
Interim U.S. Attorney Dan Clancy said the Butchers put Ford on their payroll to gain ″access to power.″ But defense lawyer William McDaniels said prosecutors failed to prove any specific favors Ford provided for Butcher payoffs.