Ford contests own law
He helped pass child support rule
The Commercial Appeal newspaper, Memphis, TN, U.S.A., by Marc Perrusquia, January 23, 2004
Locked in a bitter feud over his court-ordered child support payments, state Sen. John Ford is asking a judge to invalidate the Tennessee child support rules that he helped pass into law last year.
Already, the legal battle playing out in a Memphis courtroom has drawn attention from state Atty. Gen. Paul Summers who has intervened to defend against Ford's constitutional challenge of the rules.
On Thursday, Ford's Nashville legislative office announced the Memphis Democrat would chair a public hearing next week to re-examine rules resulting from last year's law change. One ethics expert called that move possibly one of the worst cases of unethical behavior he'd ever seen by a public official.
What Ford's public meeting notice didn't say is that he's privately contesting a woman's petition in Shelby County Juvenile Court that could greatly increase his support of her 9-year-old daughter.
Lawyers representing Dana M. Smith say Ford should pay Read More ..cause he has recently incurred a dramatic increase in income - possibly earning more than $250,000 a year - yet Ford contends his support should be held in check because he's responsible for five other children.
"The fact that he has his own interest in it, it doesn't sound like it's good policy," said Bill Allison, spokesman for The Center For Public Integrity, a private, Washington-based watchdog group.
"The people that it could ultimately hurt are children. And I think that in some ways, makes it worse.'' Ford did not respond Thursday to messages left at his Nashville and Memphis offices.
In fighting Smith's petition for Read More ..pport, Ford exercised a seldom-used legal ploy on Dec. 16, filing a constitutional challenge to state child support rules that he says should be held "void and unenforceable."
By law, Summers now must defend the rules, and his office has begun steps to take testimony and collect evidence in what is expected to be a months-long process.
As parties in the court slug it out, Ford is moving to bring the child support rules, labeled unfair by many prior to last year's law change, back into Nashville's legislative limelight. As chairman of a powerful Senate committee that guides the state's social services policy, Ford plans to revisit the matter next week.
The weekly agenda for the General Welfare Committee, released Thursday, says the body will hear Wednesday from DHS Commissioner Virginia Lodge, who will give an "update on Child Support Guidelines." The rules were revised last year through the Senate Judiciary Committee, yet Ford notified DHS on Jan. 14 that he wanted an explanation of the new rules, records show.
Ford's court challenge attacks the enforcement of a law he sponsored and guided through the General Assembly last year.
The law, which took effect last summer, requires courts to consider reducing child support for fathers who, like Ford, are supporting several dependents. The law gives judges the option to deviate from traditional rules and consider reducing a parent's payments by giving credit for other children that the parent is supporting.
The problem with the law, Ford says in legal papers, is that DHS isn't implementing rules as proscribed by the General Assembly and "has usurped the responsibility and powers'' of the legislature.
Attorney David Caywood, who is representing Ford in the Juvenile Court proceeding, said he knows nothing about the senator's planned public meeting but said DHS's enforcement of the law has left some children with inadequate support.
"They don't treat all children equally,'' Caywood said. "That's the bottom line to it."
Leading to last year's law change were complaints of noncustodial parents with multiple dependents who contended they were unfairly punished with excessive child support orders.
Some argued in court challenges that the state cheated some children out of adequate support because the state didn't allow courts to consider children not under support orders when setting payments. Because of that, most of a parent's resources flowed to the children under court supervision and little went to members of new families, they argued.
When Ford introduced a bill to change that, he found support in the House among leaders such as Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry, and Reps. Henri Brooks and Kathryn Bowers, all Memphis Democrats.
Buthis public position now is entwined with a personal interest.
Caywood said Ford currently is supporting five other children, factors that could hold his support in check or lower it.
Ford introduced his bill last February, four months after Smith petitioned Juvenile Court for an increase in Ford's $500-a-month support of her 9-year-old daughter. Smith's petition lingered for a year before lawyers asked for sanctions against Ford in November for allegedly failing to respond to evidence requests. The development triggered Ford's constitutional challenge.
Lawyers for Smith, a former county employee who sued Ford in 1995 for sexual harassment and won a jury verdict following a 7-day trial, say Ford's support should be raised because of a dramatic increase in his income.
They are relying on a report that Ford earned more than $250,000 in 2001, nearly double any income previously disclosed to the court. Caywood confirmed the amount is alleged in court papers but said he doesn't know the source of the allegation.
- Marc Perrusquia: 529-2545
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