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Ethics Chairman Talks About Ford Investigation

(Story created: 6/27/05)

FIRST ON 5: It's now been a month since the resignation of powerful Senate chairman John Ford. The man who led the Senate's investigation tells our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams what was going on behind the scenes.

"Sitting at my desk right here, [I] received word that I was going to be chairman of the ethics committee," the Senate's Republican leader, Ron Ramsey recalls. "At that time, I thought, 'Well, no big deal. The ethics committee hasn't even met in about a decade.'"

As Ramsey began this year's session, the ethics issue was no where on the horizon.

"It was probably about the middle of February that I began to realize, you know, this is serious stuff we are talking about here."

But between Senator John Ford's high-dollar consulting fees and his bust from an FBI sting, the ethics of the powerful Senate chairman would become a full-fledged scandal.

"Public pressure was really beating down on top of us to move faster than we are supposed to -- legally or ethically," Ramsey says.

What the public didn't realize, he says, is that first ethics complaint against Ford focused on the relatively narrow issue -- the issue of whether he had properly disclosed that "consulting" was one of his sources of income.

"It became quite evident before we got to the first hearing from your reporting, mainly from your reporting, that we hadn't gone far enough," Ramsey tells Phil Williams.

Among the mounting evidence: a consulting deal with TennCare contractor Doral Dental, another deal with heat-and-air giant Johnson Controls, and millions of dollars in insurance policies purchased through Ford by companies with business before his committee.

On top of that, there thousands of dollars spent on a daughter's wedding and other personal expenses using campaign money.

Appearing before the ethics committee, Ford tried to put the members on the defensive.

"Anything that we would ask him, he would jump back at us," Ramsey says. "I was not happy at all with the way it was going."

A week later, facing a public outcry, Ramsey convinced the ethics committee to take the unprecedented step of appointing a special counsel to investigate the Memphis Democrat.

"Were we forced into it? No.  But were your news reports and things like that pushing us in that direction? Yeah, but that's the way the system works."

And it was e-mail from Doral Dental uncovered by that special counsel that led to what Ramsey calls "damning" evidence.

"E-mails that say things like Senator Ford is chairman of the committee. He's assured us that all is well. We need to keep this quiet," Ramsey recalls.

"Right then, we realized that we definitely had the votes to remove him."

But, thanks to the FBI bust, the committee never got a chance to prove that it would take action against its own. Still, Ramsey says that may be John Ford's legacy.

"Is it going to be easier in the future to take action against your fellow senators?" Williams asks.

"I think that will be the case," Ramsey replies.
Ramsey says Ford's resignation might not end the ethics matter. If Ford were to beat the federal charges and get re-elected, Ramsey says he could still face a vote on whether the Senate will seat him.

As for the future, Ramsey says the committee put procedures in place to handle such investigations. And he says the public now expects lawmakers to police themselves.

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