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‘Operation Tennessee Waltz’

Sandi Soendker
Managing Editor

Down in Nashville, TN, our regular columnist Bill Hudgins tells me he is learning to tango. In Memphis, TN, state Sen. John Ford is learning to waltz – FBI style.

Let’s clarify that. He’s now former state Sen. John Ford.

Ford just resigned after a federal/state coordinated sting caught him allegedly taking payoffs and threatening to kill a witness. The sting was code-named “Operation Tennessee Waltz.”

John Ford is, of course, a member of one of Tennessee’s most powerful political families, a family that includes the popular U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis. Harold Jr. is hailed by the new Democrats as a comer on Capitol Hill. While Jr. is a rising star, his uncle John is certainly a falling star. Maybe even a crashing star. His long career, fraught with tacky shenanigans and misuse of power, is now on the chopping block.

Whatever words have been used to describe Ford, it will be “greedy” that is sadly the most accurate in the end. According to federal indictments, enforcement agents set up a phony company and offered to pay lawmakers for support of certain beneficial legislation. Ford was one of the lawmakers who stuck his itchy hand out and fell into the undercover agents’ snare. He reportedly grubbed up $55,000 in the cash-for-legislation deal.

I haven’t heard why the FBI and Tennessee Bureau of Investigations called their bust “Operation Tennessee Waltz.” Perhaps it was because of that popular saying “dance like no one is watching.” That adequately describes how John Ford lived out his political career. And why not? For 30 years, Memphis voters and even his own fellow lawmakers have averted their eyes from his trashy goings-on.

It was about 15 years ago when I first heard of John Ford. On Oct. 3, 1990, a former OOIDA member named Nelson Kieffer was driving for TSI out of Dallas. Kieffer had a wild tale that I turned into a news story.

Kieffer told me he was westbound on Interstate 40 near the 104-mile marker when construction slowed down traffic. His wife, Beverly, was asleep in the bunk. Other truckers on the CB warned him of some guy “driving at a high rate of speed,” blowing his horn, flashing his lights and trying to run other cars off the road with his Mercedes. This was about 100 miles east of Memphis.

Kieffer said that he and other truckers boxed the Mercedes in and were trying to contact a state trooper to “get something done” when the driver of the Mercedes became really angry and “flipped him off.”

That’s when the guy pulled up beside Kieffer and fired a single shot at the truck from the sunroof of a Mercedes-Benz. Kieffer said the bullet hit his windshield.

The FBI later confiscated this windshield to check out the reported bullet hole.

According to local news, at least six other people witnessed the incident. Truckers described the car as a brown Mercedes-Benz with an official state license plate bearing the number 4. It wasn’t hard to find out who was driving. Kieffer told me that Highway Patrol investigator Jim Medlin covered the names beneath photos in the Tennessee Blue Book and showed them to him. Kieffer quickly picked out John Ford.

Kieffer filed an aggravated assault warrant. Ford denied taking a shot at the trucker. The case went before Henderson County General Sessions Court Nov. 19, 1990. Somehow, Ford was found not guilty.

Ford was a controversial public servant even back then.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal depicted him as the mouth of the state Senate, liberal defender of the downtrodden, yet sponsor of legislation for the rich. It also called him a “snazzy dresser, powerful and opinionated.” Other media outlets described him as a junketeer, connoisseur of fine dining at lobbyists’ expense and a notorious fast driver. And fast drivers never like sharing the road with truckers. During the ’90s, Ford routinely filed legislation prohibiting trucks from driving in the left lane on Tennessee highways.

Ford apparently never liked sharing the road with troopers either. Richard Locker, the Commercial Appeal’s Nashville bureau chief, once told me about an incident when Ford was clocked at 100 mph by a state trooper in 1980. The trooper allegedly reported Ford was “belligerent, arrogant and egotistical.” Locker said Ford called the trooper a “racist redneck.”

The Kieffer incident wasn’t the only one to bestow Ford the have-gun-will-travel moniker. In 1997, he was charged with pulling a shotgun on utility workers who had parked their truck near his driveway. Ford was ordered to do community service and stay out of trouble for two years.

The gun-wielding allegations prompted his home state to have a bit of fun with Ford. I remember when Preston Davis, FM 100’s morning producer and disc jockey, wrote a song “John Ford Might Shoot You” to be sung to the tune of “It Had to Be You.”

This latest story, the one that finally has displaced him as a representative of the people, is prompting Tennesseans to revisit some of that cynicism. Someone just e-mailed me a message that a store owner in Nashville has turned the plight of John Ford into a “hot” selling item. Ford’s picture has been placed on bottles of “Operation Tennessee Waltz” hot sauce with the slogan, “why can you not see, the law is for you, not for me.”

Of course, Ford says he is innocent, claiming that he and several other legislators caught in the sting were “set up.” According to the L.A. Times, he called his accusers liars and said all this is the fault of people in the government who are corrupt liars.

He complained about the FBI spending taxpayers’ money setting up the phony company and baiting him into taking bribes. Strange talk coming from a man who just two months ago was fined $10,000 for spending thousands of dollars of campaign money on his daughter’s wedding. He reportedly claimed it was OK because at least a third of the guests lived in his district.

Some call John Ford a hard-working advocate, responsive to the needs of his inner-city constituents. Others say he’s no more than a “common ’hood rat in a suit,” catering to people with money. Whatever is being said, it’s a treacherous man who misuses power via public office and it’s a dangerous place where others look the other way for 30 years.

His trial is on the calendar for July 5.

Editor’s note: Other Tennesseans charged were Sen. Kathryn Bowers, Sen. Ward Crutchfield, Rep. Chris Newton, former Sen. Roscoe Dixon, Chattanooga lobbyist Charles Love, and Memphis resident Barry Myers.

sandi_soendker@landlinemag.com