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NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Capitol Hill Corruption

Lawyer Says Ford Paid to Help TennCare Provider in Other States

(Story created: 3/3/05)

FIRST ON 5: State Sen. John Ford's lawyer admits the powerful Senate chairman may have accepted money for helping a company that does business with TennCare. But he insists it's not as scandalous as it seems.

Those statements came in an exclusive interview with NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

"From a legal perspective, Sen. Ford should not be in harm's way because there is no evidence to indicate that he has violated any law," says Ed Yarbrough, Ford's attorney.

Ed Yarbrough is a noted Nashville criminal defense lawyer who was hired by Ford. 

That came amid controversy over Ford's financial ties to longtime TennCare figure Ron Dobbins. Dobbins' consulting contract with a major TennCare provider was contingent upon his relationship with an unnamed "principal legislator."

"Was that to buy influence with Sen. Ford?" Williams asks Yarbrough.

"No, absolutely not," Ford's attorney replies. "And if it were, why would anyone put something like that in the contract?"

Dobbins was hired by Doral Dental in 2001 to help it win and keep a huge TennCare contract, a contract awarded through a competitive process.

"The implication that somehow Sen. Ford was responsible for Doral getting a contract with Tennessee is completely false," Yarbrough says.

Then, there are questions about Ford's 180-degree flip-flop on the idea of handing TennCare's dental business to a separate company.

"If you look at the history of that, I think you'll find that a lot of people did the 180, not just Sen. Ford," adds Yarbrough.

Doral says it paid Dobbins' company, Managed Care Services Group, $597,000 over a two year period, 2002-2003. 

Ford's tax returns show almost a quarter of a million dollars from a partnership with a very similar name.

"What did he do for that money?" Williams asks.

"It's my understanding that that was a consulting contract," to help Doral win business in other states, Yarbrough says.

"Generally he would have shared in some of the consulting fees that may have been paid by Doral for the work in other states. That's the extent of my knowledge.  What I am sure of, though, is it was not a payment for anything having to do with the state of Tennessee, TennCare or the state legislature," says Yarbrough.

A Doral Dental spokesman declined comment while the company conducts an internal investigation.

The defense attorney says that while some may frown on such relationships, they aren't illegal.  In fact, other companies have offered similar deals to some of the senator's own colleagues.

"It's not unusual in the history of our legislature -- our part-time legislature -- for them to sometimes employ sitting legislators as consultants, not with the state of Tennessee, but with other states," Yarbrough says.

If money was given that resulted in a vote, that would be one thing, Yarbrough says.

Those consulting relationships have been hotly debated for years on Capitol Hill. But all the debate has been on whether lawmakers should have to disclose them -- not over whether they should be outlawed.

***

Also, in our exclusive interview:

Ford's attorney says the question isn't whether he has profited from his position as the powerful chairman of a Senate committee. 

His question: "Has he improperly or illegally profited from his position as a legislator?  The clear answer to that is no."

"Do members of the legislature do consulting work? Yes. Are they in industry? Yes. Does the fact that they are a member of the legislature make them more attractive in their businesses? Probably."

In fact, Yarbrough acknowledges that Ford may have taken consulting fees to help TennCare provider Doral Dental to gain a foothold in other states -- consulting fees provided through Dobbins.

"It's my understanding it was a consulting contract that was done well after Doral had already become a contractor with Tennessee, but not for services in the state of Tennessee."

Then, there are questions about a wedding reception for Ford's daughter, partly financed out of the senator's campaign funds.

"Does it look bad when you do stories regarding the wedding and so on and so forth? I think we all would have to say, probably so."

While Yarbrough says he hasn't had a chance to research the prohibition against use of campaign funds for personal reasons, he is sure that regulators haven't been very strict about enforcing that law.

"I don't think Sen. Ford has done anything substantially different from what his colleagues have done over the years."

In the end, Yarbrough says he believes investigators will find Ford has complied with the letter of ethics laws that may not be as strict as some would like.

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