NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – E-Cycle Management Inc. looked like any other company trying to win influence at the Tennessee State Capitol.

It had business cards, a Web site, and a chief executive who lobbied lawmakers over wine and finger food.

But the electronics and computer recycling firm was phony, a front for an elaborate FBI sting operation aimed at catching Tennessee lawmakers accepting bribes.

The two-year undercover operation, code-named “Tennessee Waltz,” ended with the arrest of four lawmakers – including powerful state Sen. John Ford – and a former legislator on bribery charges. Ford announced his resignation Saturday, a day after being placed under house arrest as he awaits trial.

Ford, who has been a member of the Senate for more than 30 years and is the uncle of U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., is also accused of threatening a witness.

“This was a major-league effort,” said Neil Cohen, a former state prosecutor. “It’s not uncommon – it’s ongoing all the time all over the country – but there aren’t many at this level where there’s this much effort and resources and time devoted to one particular sting.”

The FBI even went so far as to register E-Cycle as a corporation with the Georgia Secretary of State, listing its chief executive officer as “J Carson.” E-Cycle had a storefront office in Memphis, not far from the Beale Street entertainment district.

Undercover agents, posing as executives of E-Cycle, offered lawmakers free trips to Florida and wined and dined them at a reception at a Nashville hotel in January.

“I think it’s fair to say this type of thing is expensive,” said George Bolds, spokesman for the FBI office in Memphis, who said he could not reveal the exact cost of the sting. “It’s kind of an extraordinary and sensitive technique used.”

Prosecutors played a videotape Friday of Ford watching an undercover agent count out $10,000 and an audiotape of him allegedly threatening a potential witness. His lawyer suggested the purported threat was meant as a joke.

Ford, Sens. Kathryn Bowers and Ward Crutchfield, and state Rep. Chris Newton were all sponsors of a bill proposed by E-Cycle that would have given the state the option of getting rid of old computer equipment by selling it to a “qualified electronic recycling company.”

The E-Cycle bill didn’t look terribly suspicious, and it was working its way through the Legislature until Newton withdrew it the day before he was arrested.

State Rep. Charles Sargent was among six co-sponsors of the E-Cycle bill who were not indicted. He said Newton asked him to support it.

“I took a look at it, and it was basically a recycling bill. It would keep this kind of equipment out of landfills,” he said.

Another bill sponsor who wasn’t charged, state Rep. Paul Stanley, met twice with E-Cycle CEO “Joe Carson.” Once, they met over lunch at a Memphis restaurant to discuss the bill.

Both Stanley and Sargent said they did not take any money from E-Cycle.

According to the indictments, the lawmakers and two other men took $92,000 to usher bills for E-Cycle through the Legislature. Ford is accused of taking $55,000.

Bowers, one of the other lawmakers arrested with Ford this week, said she is not guilty and does not plan to resign. “Everybody that knows me knows I’m a fighter,” she said.

During his tenure in the state Senate, Ford has lost paternity lawsuits, given a political job to a girlfriend, used campaign money for his daughter’s wedding and been successfully sued for sexual harassment.

Republican Senate leader Ron Ramsey said the Ethics Committee he chairs was getting ready to file a six-count charge against Ford for violating Senate rules stemming from a separate investigation – into allegations he was paid by a consulting company with financial ties to the state’s Medicaid program.

“I believe we would have had the votes to remove Senator Ford from office,” Ramsey said.

Sen. Tim Burchett, a Republican, said he was a little surprised by the resignation, “but I think he realized a cat only has nine lives and he’s on about life 10.”


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