Bribery and extortion: remembering the FBI's Tennessee Waltz investigation

Posted at 5:49 PM, Jan 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-13 21:42:39-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — With Republican lawmakers currently under investigation by the FBI, NewsChannel 5 talked with the FBI about a previous investigation into political corruption in Tennessee.

The mid-2000s investigation called the "Tennessee Waltz" included bribery, extortion and legislation to benefit a fake company. FBI Special Agent Brian Burns was there and remembers it well.

"We decided an undercover investigation would be the best way to understand the full extent of the corruption. So, we initiated that in 2004," said Burns.

What started as a small case out of Shelby County eventually led investigators to suspect serious corruption at the state capitol.

At the time, NewsChannel5's Phil Williams was in the middle of a major investigation into State senator John Ford, a Democrat out of Memphis. The FBI investigation involved setting up a fake company that recycled old electronic equipment to third world countries.

"We wanted exclusive legislation that would benefit our undercover company and in exchange for that we would pay bribes to the subjects," said Burns. "On the local level we had one in Shelby County and one in Hamilton, we represented we wanted exclusive contracts for both of these parties."

Over the course of the multi-year investigation, the FBI gave out about $150,000 in bribes to state lawmakers including John Ford.

The investigation eventually led to the arrests of a dozen people including senator Ford, multiple other state senators, a representative, and other government officials. Burns says most corruption cases are smaller but this one was unusual.

"When you have the more systemic, where it's more expansive, those don't come around nearly as often," said Burns.

He says Tennessee has a long history of government corruption, including a former governor who went to prison for selling pardons. Longtime NewsChannel5 political analyst Pat Nolan said these past corruption cases still impact us today.

"The biggest takeaways going forward were the approvals of new state ethics laws and also the creation of a new independent ethics commission for the state," said Nolan.

Nolan said the fact that the FBI is investigating potential corruption again raises questions about the culture at the capitol.