The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals yesterday lifted a gag order on Rep. Harold E. Ford (D-Tenn.), who quickly denounced as "racist" the assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the investigation that resulted in the lawmaker's indictment this year.
Ford is scheduled to go on trial Nov. 9 on charges of using his political influence in exchange for loans from Tennessee banks owned by convicted financiers Jake and C.H. Butcher Jr.
In the court ruling yesterday, the panel found that the order preventing Ford from discussing his case publicly was a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech.
"The defendant, a Democrat, a black congressman who represents a largely black constituency in Memphis, is entitled to attack the alleged political motives of the Republican administration which he claims is persecuting him because of his political views and his race," the three-judge panel wrote. "One may strongly disagree with the political view he expresses but have no doubt that he has the right to express his outrage."
House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and others had filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Ford's behalf saying that members of Congress should be exempt from gag orders.
Ford, who has maintained a spotty silence at best in compliance with the gag order, used yesterday's Congressional Black Caucus forum on black officials and harassment to renew his harsh criticism of Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Clancy while denying that his allegations of racism have been a knee-jerk defense.
"I didn't holler racism," he said. "We were able to put the facts on the table. We called the man exactly what he was. I didn't say the Justice Department was racist; I didn't say that the Republican Party was racist. I think this one assistant U.S. attorney by the name of Dan Clancy is a racist."
Ford has maintained that Clancy has gone out of his way to prosecute him, accusing him of seeking an indictment in the eastern part of the state after a grand jury in Ford's district failed to charge him.
Clancy, in a telephone interview, said yesterday that he had never requested a gag order in the case and could not otherwise respond to Ford's allegations.
"How do you disprove something like that?" he said. "There are a number of people in Memphis, black and white, who know that's not the case."
Ford was one of several present or former black officials who said at the caucus meeting yesterday that they suffer more than their white counterparts do from intense Justice Department scrutiny.
Herbert O. Reid, legal counsel to Mayor Marion Barry, said such corruption investigations are often a "scare tactic" used by prosecutors to undermine black leadership.