As reported by Trevor Aaronson here in the Commercial Appeal
Dennis Churchwell pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to a felony perjury count related to grand jury testimony he gave as part of FBI Operation Main Street Sweeper.
The local businessman and property owner admitted he lied to a grand jury by saying indicted former city councilman Edmund Ford Sr. was not delinquent in paying rent for 3390 Elvis Presley Blvd., where the politician runs E.H. Ford Mortuary Services.
Under the plea agreement, federal prosecutors will drop five other perjury charges against Churchwell.
The politician's landlord appeared before the grand jury on March 27, 2007, as part of the FBI operation that investigated, among other things, how Ford used his elected position for personal financial gain.
According to a statement of facts signed by Churchwell and submitted to the court, Ford lobbied for and voted in favor of a special-use permit on July 19, 2005, that allowed Churchwell to store heavy equipment, such as bulldozers, at his property at 3403 Elvis Presley Blvd. In turn, Churchwell allowed Ford to become delinquent on his $2,500 monthly rent.
During the investigation, federal authorities tried to determine whether Churchwell forgave Ford's rent in exchange for the councilman's help in obtaining the special-use permit.
When interviewed by FBI agent Mark Post in February 2007, Churchwell said Ford was about $24,000 behind in rent, according to the statement of facts. His story changed one month later when he appeared before a grand jury.
"At the end of 2005, he was paid up," Churchwell said of Ford while under oath. Tax records didn't substantiate that claim. On her 2005 tax form, Churchwell's wife, Lynley, reported $4,610 in rental income from 3390 Elvis Presley Blvd. when the income should have been as much as $30,000, the government discovered.
Asked outside the courthouse why Churchwell lied to the grand jury about Ford's rent, the businessman's attorney, Mark McDaniel, replied tersely: "I don't think that's a fair question."
McDaniel said the grand jury testimony placed Churchwell, who is illiterate and has only an eighth-grade education, in a situation whose gravity he did not fully understand. In fact, McDaniel noted, Churchwell went before the grand jury without an attorney by his side.
"I believe the responses came more from frustration than it was to be a liar," McDaniel said of the grand jury testimony.
Churchwell will be sentenced Aug. 5. He faces up to 16 months in prison. Churchwell isn't the only Memphian whose relationship with Ford turned poisonous.
Former Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division president Joseph Lee III is awaiting trial on federal charges that allege he allowed Ford's utility bill to grow to more than $16,000 without cutoffs in return for the politician's help in pushing the MLGW executive's confirmation through a divided City Council.
In addition, Ford is awaiting trial not only for the MLGW-related charges but also for accepting bribes in the FBI's 2006 money-for-votes sting. Ford elected not to run for re-election in 2007. His son, Edmund Ford Jr., won the race to succeed him.