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Memphis News

$40,000 watch -- bad timing for Ford

Prosecutors eye Rolex to show a pattern of payoffs
By Marc Perrusquia
Contact
December 21, 2006
Just when it seemed John Ford's legal troubles couldn't get worse, enter a $40,000 wristwatch of questionable origin.

Federal prosecutors alleged Wednesday that Ford received the watch -- a diamond-studded Rolex Masterpiece -- in 2004 from prominent Memphis developer Rusty Hyneman.

Ford once asserted he got the watch free of charge after using his influence to try to reduce state pollution fines levied against Hyneman, prosecutors said.

Neither Hyneman nor Ford has been charged in connection with the watch transaction, yet prosecutors plan to use it as evidence that Ford, who faces separate corruption charges in Memphis and Nashville, had a practice of taking payoffs.

"Ford stated that he had received the watch because he had done Hyneman a big favor, that is, saved him 1.3 million dollars,'' says a "Notice of Intervention to Introduce Evidence of Other Crimes, Wrongs or Acts,'' filed Wednesday.

The notice by U.S. Atty. David Kustoff and Asst. U.S. Atty. Tim DiScenza seeks to introduce the watch as evidence in Ford's bribery trial set to start Feb. 5 in Memphis.

Ford's lawyer, Michael Scholl, said the watch wasn't a payoff or a gift and that he will emphatically fight to keep it out of evidence.

"The watch is completely irrelevant to any of this. It was never used for a payoff or anything else,'' Scholl said. "That truth will come out in our court filing."

Hyneman didn't return two phone messages left at his office.

Ford is charged in U.S. District Court in Memphis with taking $55,000 in cash bribes in the FBI's Tennessee Waltz undercover sting. In an unrelated matter, Ford was indicted this week by a federal grand jury in Nashville on charges alleging huge kickbacks taken while he was in the General Assembly.

Ford, 64, denies the charges in both cases.

He resigned from the Senate in May 2005 after his Waltz indictment in Memphis.

According to the notice filed Wednesday, federal authorities relieved Ford of the Rolex when he was arrested. Evidence rules let prosecutors introduce "like and similar'' acts by a defendant, but defense attorneys get an opportunity to quash the evidence. No hearing has been set.

Given the government's allegations about the watch, it's not clear why Ford or Hyneman haven't been charged. A retired University of Tennessee law professor said it could be a strategic move by prosecutors.

"It could be that they're after the developer and they're holding these prosecutions out as a stick'' to get him to cooperate, said Neil P. Cohen, who has an expertise in criminal law.

The U.S. Attorney's Office won't comment on the case.

The notice says prosecutors will introduce statements by Ford -- presumably taped during the Waltz sting -- that he "had assisted a Memphis developer, Rusty Hyneman, in trying to clear up approximately two million dollars in fines ... .''

The notice said Ford met with state lawyers and a state commissioner and that Ford claimed "he had saved Hyneman one million dollars in fines as a result of the meeting ... .

"The United States will further prove that subsequent to the meeting with environmental officials, John Ford attempted to telephone Rusty Hyneman, and indicated that he wanted 'that watch' ... .

"Ford (later) showed (an) individual a Rolex watch, stating that it was worth fifty thousand dollars. Ford stated that he had received this watch from Rusty Hyneman, and that he had not paid anything for the watch.''

The Commercial Appeal reported last year that Ford interceded on behalf of Hyneman, yet based on official accounts, it didn't appear he saved Hyneman any money or that fines were as high as the notice cites Ford as claiming.

After state Atty. Gen. Paul Summers filed suit against Hyneman and two other developers seeking penalties, Ford arranged a meeting to negotiate to reduce the penalties.

Ford, Hyneman and his attorney, Allan Wade, met with Betsy L. Child, then-commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and other state officials on or about Oct. 4, 2004.

The topic was a case in which the state alleged widespread, ongoing water pollution violations at several East Shelby County subdivisions developed by Hyneman.

One of the meeting participants, TDEC general counsel Joseph Sanders, said at the time that he recalled Ford indicated his involvement on behalf of Hyneman was that of a legislator helping a constituent.

The meeting was relatively brief, Sanders said, because the state easily refuted claims by the Hyneman contingent that the enforcement action targeted "paperwork violations" instead of real pollution. State officials presented photos of muddy runoff pouring off construction sites as a result of inadequate erosion-control measures.

After viewing the photos, the Hyneman representatives indicated they were ready to settle the case, Sanders said. The state's response was "make us an offer," he said. But as far as he recalls, no offer was made.

Reached Wednesday, Attorney General chief of staff Leigh Ann Jones said the suit, filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, remains open and is set for trial in July.

-- Marc Perrusquia: 529-2545
Will he need a watch in the big house?