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Ethics Committee Asks Special Counsel to Aid Ford Investigation

(Story created: 3/24/05)

An investigation of state Sen. John Ford took a dramatic new turn. The Senate's Ethics Committee voted to bring in special counsel to expand its investigation of the powerful Senate chairman. It's a major reversal from the last ethics hearing.

After Ford's appearance last week, ethics committee members found themselves facing mounting criticism -- criticism for failing to challenge the powerful Senate chairman on what he did to earn high-dollar consulting fees from special interests.

"I know we are frustrated. The public has been frustrated," said Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville.

So, the committee came back and unanimously voted to expand its investigation, Senate Democratic Caucus chairman Joe Haynes making the motion to get outside help in conducting a full-blown investigation of his colleague.

"This is unprecedented that the Senate Ethics Committee seeks outside counsel," Ramsey said. "But maybe we are in times now -- I think maybe we are -- where we need that."

Ramsey told reporters he became especially concerned about the consulting deal -- first revealed by our NewsChannel 5 investigation -- between Ford and heat-and-air giant Johnson Controls.

State officials say Ford tried to persuade them to sign contracts with the company.

"We cannot use our official title or stationery for contacting any agency or department of state government for compensation," Ramsey explained.

Ethics committee members also want to know about Ford's deals with TennCare contractor Doral Dental and, they clarified, about any new revelations that may come out in the future.

"I'm going to be gone in a few years," Haynes said, "but I want this institution to prevail, and I want it to have the confidence of the public."

A real investigation may take time, committee members cautioned. But they promise an investigation that will be fair to their colleague and to the public.

The ethics committee asked state attorney general Paul Summer to provide them with legal counsel to assist in their investigation.

Summers released a statement saying his office would provide whatever staff the committee needed to complete its investigation.

There's been no comment from Ford.

His consulting deals are also at the center of a federal grand jury investigation.

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