State Rep. Ulysses Jones (D-Memphis) took a bribe from an FBI informant to push through legislation favorable to the government’s fake company E-Cycle, informant Tim Willis has claimed.
Willis, a one-time Memphis lobbyist, worked for the FBI by posing as a lobbyist for the fictitious Georgia company. E-Cycle was central to the sting operation dubbed “Tennessee Waltz,” a sting set up to nab politicians taking bribes, which led to the arrests of four sitting lawmakers and three other political operatives on May 26 of this year.
Jones, who sponsored the legislation, was among the many legislators Willis approached. Jones took the preemptive step in May of disclosing that he had been approached and that the money he got from E-Cycle was a campaign contribution.
Willis’s comments “are a lie,” Jones said yesterday when informed of the accusations. “I will be willing to take a lie detector test, even by the FBI,” he said. “The only money I took was a campaign contribution.”
Willis said, however, that E-Cycle never gave campaign contributions. Other lawmakers, such as embattled State Senator Jeff Miller (R-Cleveland), have made the same claim as Jones.
Breaking the silence
The FBI informant hasn’t spoken on the record to any media outlet since the sting’s details emerged in May — until now. In a downtown Memphis hotel late one Sunday evening last month, Willis, an aspiring movie director, discussed how he got involved with the federal government and its probe into corruption in the state legislature.
Willis’s role led to the indictments and arrests of State Sen. John Ford (D-Memphis), Sen. Ward Crutchfield (D-Chattanooga), state Rep. Chris Newton (R-Cleveland), Sen. Kathryn Bowers (D-Memphis) and former Sen. Roscoe Dixon. Barry Myers of Memphis and Charles Love, a lobbyist and former Hamilton County Board of Education member, were also arrested. Newton, Myers and Love have since pleaded guilty.
Willis has become a political pariah in Memphis, while the sting has forced legislators to take a hard look at themselves, though it isn’t clear yet whether they can prevent future transgressions.
Over the course of the next three days, NashvillePost.com will publish what Willis said in those conversations. The stories will detail how Willis’s relationship and contacts with the Ford political organization launched him into politics in Memphis and statewide, and how he says he got involved with the FBI. He claims he played the informant role willingly, and that he was not strong-armed into it by the feds because of his own past legal problems.
Two versions of a meeting
In his interviews, which took place late one evening and early the next morning, Willis didn’t seem nervous. He spoke easily and freely, except when he reached a point that he wouldn’t discuss on the record, or at all, because of Dixon’s impending January trial.
But he talked about Jones. Willis had approached Jones to sponsor legislation and push it through the General Assembly.
Simply put, E-Cycle would take old computers off the hands of state and local governments. The company would pay for items that were destined for the dump, and itpromised to be eco-friendly in the process, reconditioning what could be salvaged and responsibly handling and disposing of materials in computers that would be harmful to the environment if sent to a landfill.
In previous media reports, Jones stated that Willis had offered a bribe and that he declined it. Willis remembered events this way:
"Since he put it out there, Ulysses Jones’s lyin’ ass, that day that he came by my office, I had been told that he needed this money by the other bagman, Charles Love,” Willis recalled. “It wasn't in my desk drawer, I had the money on me. I acted as if it was in my desk drawer. He was on camera, tape, the full nine, going. I mean when I walked into my office, I turned everything on, it's going.
"I count the money out, he looks around at the windows, because I inadvertently had the windows opened … and Jones was like, ‘Aww man, aww man, I can't do this, I can't do this...the window’s open, man, I don't know what’s going on, I don't know what's in here!’
"He pushes the money back to me. I was so happy when he did that. I was so happy. A smile crossed my face, I said, ‘All right! He's one of the good ones!’ I proceed to put the money back in the drawer, he gets up and walks to the door, and then I'm following him. He [Jones] is like, ‘Hey! Where you going?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Man, you better go get that money. I just didn't want it in that office.’"
Willis was genuinely disappointed, he recalls. “In my head, I’m thinking, ‘I thought you was one of the good ones. Your mother-f___ing ass is on the take.’”
He went back to the drawer, took out the money, and gave it to Jones, Willis said.
Willis said in his interview with NashvillePost.com that this interaction with Jones was their only encounter. “After that, he was passed on to Charles Love,” Willis said.
Jones gave a different version of the events.
Jones said he was invited up to Willis’s office to check out his new space and that he knew Willis through former Sen. John Ford’s campaigns. Willis was bragging about how much money he was making a month and how nice his office was, Jones said.
“When we got to the office, he started counting out stacks of ten dollar bills and laying them on the desk,” Jones recalled. “I thought he was a man that was new to the lobbying game and didn’t know what he could or couldn’t do.”
When offered the money, Jones said, he informed Willis that he could take only a $1,000 campaign contribution, which he says he accepted at that time. Jones stated further that he made photocopies of the money he received and turned the copies in with his campaign financial disclosure form, as required by law. He adamantly denied asking for or receiving money in the hallway.
When asked about the allegation that Charles Love directed Willis to attempt to bribe him, Jones went on to say that the weekend following the encounter with Willis, he met Love and a man represented as the owner of E-Cycle, a person that Jones says was different than someone he had been introduced to before as the owner.
Jones said they met at a coffee shop in Memphis and as they were leaving, outside the front door of the coffee house, Love attempted to give him an envelope. “We want you to have this,” Love supposedly said.
Jones says he declined the envelope, turned around and walked away.
Willis said later in the interview with NashvillePost.com that his meeting with Jones hadn’t gone the way Love had suggested it would. After the meeting with Jones, he passed that information to E-Cycle’s president, Joe Carson, a retired FBI agent working undercover.
“I said, ‘Joe, Charles told me one thing and I get upstairs and the guy says a whole ‘nother thing,” Willis remembers. “Now, he took the money but it just wasn’t like Charles said it was.”
Carson pulled Love aside. According to Willis, Love told him, “Let me check into it. Let me talk to him.”
Remorse and repercussions
Love had no idea he was involved in an FBI sting, Willis asserted. He said Love didn’t start cooperating with the FBI until February or April of this year. Upon being told that E-Cycle was all a sham, Love responded, according to Willis:
“I should have known. I should have known.”
Love was arrested with the others and has since pleaded guilty.
Those May arrests of lawmakers shocked Capitol Hill, and there has been much speculation surrounding the possibility of more indictments.
Leigh Anne Jordon, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Tennessee, which is in charge of the case, declined to comment on whether more indictments are in the offing or on Willis’s comments. But according to Willis, the fear on the Hill is justified.
While he declined to say on the record whether he knew whom the FBI might be looking at now, Willis says more action in the case is quite possible.
"There may be other indictments," Willis said, suggesting that the authorities may just be working through a heavy caseload. "There are just not that many agents, not that many prosecutors,” he said. “They had to take the bigger cases first.”
The complicated background of the FBI's primary operative in the 'Tennessee Waltz' undercover investigation
The final installment of NashvillePost.com's three-part series based on an exclusive interview with the key informant behind the federal sting operation: How the minuet between Tim Willis and the FBI became a tango
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