NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Capitol Hill Corruption
Ethics Panel Sets Different Standards for Ford, Cooper Investigations
(Story created: 9/1/05)
FIRST ON 5: Why did the Senate's ethics committee order a full investigation of one lawmaker -- and then decide not to investigate another? Our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams put their story to the truth test.
State Sen. John Ford, D-Memphis, cashed in on his position to land lucrative consulting deals from companies with business before the committee that he chaired.
Sen. Jerry Cooper, D-Smartt, convinced state officials that came before his committee to approve a rail line to some land, which he sold for more than a million dollars.
In Ford's case, the Senate Ethics Committee hired special counsel to investigate his ethical lapses -- even though he hadn't been implicated by any other investigation at the time.
But in a hearing Wednesday that an ethics panel tried to keep secret, they decided not to investigate Cooper's land deal.
That despite the fact that a federal grand jury recently labeled him an "unindicted co-conspirator" in a related bank fraud scheme.
"The FBI is investigating this, and what we would be doing is duplication," said Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown.
He said the ethics panel would wait until a federal grand jury indicted Cooper or until more evidence came out.
In Ford's case, no other lawmakers were involved.
But the money for Cooper's land came from a bank owned by Lt. Gov. John Wilder, who was there to make his presence felt before the ethics panel -- until we showed up.
"I was just looking around, yes, sir," Wilder told Phil Williams.
"Just looking around?" Williams asked. "You're not here for the meeting."
"I'm going back to my office now."
"But you were here for the meeting."
"I came. I thought I might sit in, yes."
Ethics committee members claimed it'd be cheaper to let the FBI investigate Cooper -- something they might have done with Ford if they'd known agents were interested.
"We were all shocked to find out the FBI had been investigating him," Southerland claimed.
But, at Ford's ethics hearing back in March, everyone knew he was under investigation.
Even the chairman of the full Senate Ethics Committee pointed out that the laws enforced by the FBI and the Senate's code of ethics are two different things.
"We are not going to wait on the grand jury for anything -- let me assure you of that," Sen. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said at the time.
"We don't have to wait on the grand jury to do anything. We can move forward with any action they choose to take because they aren't parallel."
Add to that the committee's claim that it couldn't find the same documents relating to Cooper that we found in the state's own files, and some question whether the Ford investigation was more the exception than the rule.