Rep. Harold E. Ford (D-Tenn.), who was indicted April 24 by a federal grand jury on charges of fraud and embezzlement, has introduced legislation to bolster the rights of individuals who are the subject of grand jury investigations. Ford's office said that the legislation was "inspired by the circumstances of his own indictment."
The legislation, which he introduced in the House on Thursday, would give targets of grand juries the right to have polygraph examinations administered to any witness who is a convicted felon or a party to a plea bargain agreement. The results of the tests would then be made available to the grand jury.
The measure would also give the targets of grand juries the right to testify before the panel and would require the presentation to grand juries of any "exculpatory evidence" that had been gathered by previous grand juries investigating the individual on similar matters.
Charles F.C. Ruff, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said that the Ford proposals "would work a dramatic change in the mangagement of grand juries" and would hamper federal prosecutors.
"This proposal strikes me as off to one end of the spectrum," said Ruff, who is supporting a proposal that would give targets of grand juries the right to counsel when they appear before the panel.
Ruff said Ford's suggestion that a polygraph examination be administered to any felon testifying before a grand jury "would be a major hurdle to the orderly conduct of grand jury investigations." Ruff added that such an examination might harm potential defendants because it is not always a reliable indicator of truthfulness.
A. Jay Cooper Jr., Ford's chief aide, described the legislation as "grand jury reform" that is designed to ensure "basic fairness" for individuals who are the subject of grand jury investigations and to protect those individuals against "prosecutorial abuse."
In a statement, Ford said: "Our judicial system must be fair as well as effective and efficient. We cannot in our zeal to prosecute the criminal run roughshod over the rights of the innocent."
Ford's statement said the legislation would have no impact on his criminal case.
Ford, a seven-term congressman from Memphis, Tenn., is scheduled to go on trial Nov. 7 on charges that he benefited from the diversion of $350,000 from banks run by two convicted financiers, Jake Butcher and C.H. Butcher Jr. The 19-count indictment returned in Knoxville, Tenn. asserts that the money was funneled to Ford through a "sham corporation."
Ford has denied any wrongdoing and has charged in turn that the criminal proceeding is politically and racially motivated. Ford is the only black member of Congress from Tennessee.
The legislation he introduced closely parallels some of the circumstances involving his own case. Ford asked to testify before the grand jury that investigated him and was turned down; the grand jury heard testimony from a convicted felon and another witness who was a party to a plea bargain agreement, and he was indicted by a Knoxville grand jury after a lengthy investigation by a Memphis panel that brought no indictment.