Agents Didn't Search Capitol Offices in Corruption Case - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Capitol Hill Corruption

Agents Didn't Search Capitol Offices in Corruption Case

(Story created: 7/11/05)

FIRST ON 5: Federal agents could have missed important clues in the investigation of Capitol Hill Corruption. But our NewsChannel 5 investigation uncovered some of those clues inside former chairman John Ford's desk on the Senate floor.

And it's raising even more questions about what else agents might have missed. Our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams went looking where investigators did not go.


It was a dramatic day back in May. Five current or former lawmakers were rounded up in a public corruption sting -- all part of the FBI's Operation Tennessee Waltz.

Yet, despite images of agents roaming the halls of the state Capitol, the Senate's clerk confirms that agents never executed any search warrants on the very offices that the lawmakers are accused of abusing.

"It's hard to believe that they didn't search here in the chambers where all the action goes on," says activist Ben Cunningham of the Tennessee Tax Revolt group.

Williams asks retired FBI supervisor Ray Eganey, "Is it possible that they missed something?"

"It's possible," Eganey replies.

In fact, while agents did search Ford's personal office in Memphis on the day of the round-up, the Senate's clerk says Ford's employees were allowed to clean out his legislative office for him.

But inside the desk in the Senate chambers where Ford sat for years, we discovered evidence of the kind of special interest influence that activists like Cunningham have long feared.

"We hear about this kind of thing," Cunningham tells Williams, "but to see it in black and white is absolutely amazing."

There, among religious messages passed out by other lawmakers -- along with a business card and cell phone number from a high-ranking highway patrol official -- we discovered notes passed to the Memphis Democrat by lobbyists during Senate debates.

"This is precisely the kind of thing that we can't have happen in the people's legislature," Cunningham says.

For example, there's a note passed to Ford from lobbyist Betty Anderson, telling him that he doesn't need to announce a committee meeting on the Senate floor.

Instead, she suggests that he just "send out notice" to committee members.

"It's a control of the government, of information by the very people that shouldn't be controlling it," the tax activist adds.

Anderson says the note was absolutely not meant to keep a meeting quiet.  Still, it's the coziness of the closing line -- "why don't we do that" -- that bothers Cunningham.

"Why don't we -- assuming that she and Sen. Ford are acting together -- why don't we do that?"

But, perhaps most critical, we discovered notes from the lobbyist for OmniCare.

That's the TennCare company that has admitted paying Ford more than $400,000 and finds itself at the center of the growing criminal investigation.

"This is absolutely primary evidence."

Omnicare's lobbyist, Sharon Johnson, writes in the note to Ford, "Please make sure Amendment 1 and 2 gets on this TennCare bill."

She adds: "Amendment 2 is vital to OmniCare."

Ford's desk also included amendments labeled in big, red letters "Omni|Care Amendment." There were also other summaries also other summaries of TennCare-related bills.

Cunningham says, "The fact that he got the $400,000 -- and here is a lobbyist saying, 'Amendment 2 is vital to us,' I can't understand why the FBI wouldn't want this kind of information."

Eganey, now with OpSec Consultants, says he doesn't think it would have been difficult for federal investigators to have obtained search warrants for the legislative offices.

He says he doesn't understand why agents would not have searched the same places that we looked.

"It could lead you to other corporations, other industries, other areas, other people. You just don't know."

Cunningham says, "I don't understand why this wouldn't have been gathered up. And hopefully now that you've found it, Phil, it will be used."

As to why the Capitol wasn't searched, the feds aren't talking.

The OmniCare matter is still under investigation.

That's why, right after NewsChannel 5 discovered the materials, we contacted investigators with the FBI-TBI task force that's investigating Ford. They took custody of everything that we found.

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