Joe Cooper always wanted to be a major player in local politics. After 30 years, he finally got his wish.
A county squire from 1972 to 1977 under the old system of county government, Cooper was convicted of bank fraud, went to prison for four months, and returned to the political arena as a frequent and unsuccessful candidate for various elected offices. He has worked at times as a restaurateur, an assistant to the late billboard magnate William B. Tanner, and a salesman at Bud Davis Cadillac. For several years, Cooper has also been a familiar figure at City Council meetings, where it was never clear whether he was watching or working as a lobbyist in his unique style.
Now a money-laundering rap has Cooper cooperating with the FBI to set up City Council members Rickey Peete and Edmund Ford on a bribery charge involving billboards and zoning. Cooper went undercover to secretly tape and record the councilmen as they allegedly took cash payments from him in their offices.
The investigation has further crippled a city council whose authority and prestige were already waning toward irrelevance. Quasi-public boards such as the Center City Commission, Riverfront Development Corporation, Industrial Development Board, and Sports Authority have the power to grant tax freezes and build signature projects. Peete is one of several members who used the council as a springboard to these and other boards. Other members, including Janet Hooks and TaJuan Stout Mitchell, have resigned to take full-time jobs with the city administration. Tom Marshall, the council's senior member, exercises his greatest influence not as a council member but as head of Memphis City Schools' long-range facilities planning committee. Recusals and absences often mean the council is voting with 10 or 11 members, as it did on an important annexation vote (now likely to be delayed indefinitely) in November, instead of 13.
When the Tennessee Waltz investigation broke, no council members were indicted. But there was a feeling that it was just a matter of time. Cooper is in a position to play a role similar to cooperating witnesses Tim Willis and Barry Myers in Tennessee Waltz. Cooper's cooperation could lighten his sentence and appears to be key to removing Peete and Ford from office, and he may also have set up others on the council and County Commission.
"Joe Cooper is probably looking at more prison time than Rickey Peete just because of the dollars involved in the money-laundering case," said former U.S. attorney Hickman Ewing Jr.
Joe Cooper's client
The applicant for the billboards and zoning change was Memphis attorney William H. Thomas. Thomas did not return calls seeking comment. Councilmen said he is more of a land investor and billboard buyer than a practicing attorney. He developed apartments (and billboards) on Interstate 40 near Appling Road. He also proposed a warehouse project in the airport land-buyout area that was opposed by Whitehaven residents and rejected by the City Council in 2004. In 2005, he came before the state bar's Board of Professional Responsibility on a complaint involving a billboard that he was ordered to remove but did not. Helen Chastain, spokeswoman for the BPR, said Thomas was held in contempt of court. Thomas is appealing, and the board is awaiting the results of the appeal before issuing a censure.
Thomas is not identified by name in the criminal complaint. He could have hired Cooper to lobby the council without giving him specific instructions or knowing what Cooper was going to do with any money he paid to him. Cooper knew the billboard business from working for Tanner, who was the local billboard king in the 1990s. But Cooper's reputation and criminal history were also well known and might have concerned a client in the wake of the Tennessee Waltz investigation.
The city planning staff regarded Thomas' proposed four-acre Steve Road Planned Development of mini-storage facilities as unsuitable for the neighborhood and mainly aimed at getting billboard permits. It unanimously recommended rejection even though Thomas' planning firm was Fisher & Arnold, a well-regarded firm with former city planners on its staff. Thomas then took his plan to the Memphis City Council, a common practice even after plans get a negative recommendation. On October 3rd, the council voted 9-2 to approve it, with Scott McCormick and Carol Chumney voting no.
More significantly, the council overturned a billboard moratorium passed years ago under the leadership of former Councilman John Vergos, who made opposition to new billboards a personal crusade. Billboard magnates Tanner and Jerry Peck were major political contributors in the form of cash and campaign advertising. They had a falling-out over the division of their company, Tanner-Peck Outdoor Advertising, and the case went to Chancery Court. Chancellor Floyd Peete decided it in Tanner's favor. Peete died shortly after that, but a 2005 indictment of Tanner alleged that Peete was on the take. Tanner died before that case could be resolved.
Cooper paid Rickey Peete at the councilman's office on Beale Street, leaving "the paper" in the bathroom. Ford's payments were made at his funeral home, according to the complaint. The affidavit says the FBI provided the $19,000 in cash. Ewing said that is standard practice in stings so that the serial numbers can be recorded and the money can be used as evidence.
Are indictments upcoming?
Yes, assuming Peete and Ford maintain their innocence. Ewing said the government will probably present the case to a federal grand jury for indictments within 30 days. The affidavits in the criminal complaints are long on detail to establish probable cause, but the indictments must rise to a higher standard.
"Typically, you go way beyond probable cause to sufficient evidence to obtain and sustain a conviction," Ewing said.
He said it is unusual for a federal case to start with a complaint instead of an indictment. The advantage is speed -- the arrest of the two council members froze everything and allowed their offices to be searched. The searches may produce new evidence for the indictment. The government says it has audio and videotapes of Peete and Ford taking money or discussing payoffs in veiled terms.
The tapes will have a big influence on both a future jury and, in the short run, public sentiment if Ford and Peete maintain their innocence. Tapes of John Ford taking money in Tennessee Waltz have been released although he has not been tried. Tapes of Roscoe Dixon taking money helped convict the former state senator and blunt criticism that the case amounted to entrapment.
Rickey Peete's prospects are not good
Peete has been convicted once before of political corruption. While he was a member of the City Council in 1989, Peete extorted money from Hank Hill, a homebuilder cooperating with the FBI. Ewing, who was U.S. attorney in Memphis at the time, remembers the case well. The government held its cards close. The FBI had audiotapes of a meeting at a Shoney's restaurant where Peete reached under a table and took $1,000 from Hill. There were no videotapes although there were two undercover federal agents sitting at a nearby table. The audiotape was played for the first time at trial, and Peete was convicted.
Peete served his prison sentence and was reelected in 1995. It says something about his resilience and Memphis political culture that Peete came back stronger than ever with constituents, colleagues, and the media and rose to leadership positions at the Beale Street Merchants Association, the Center City Commission, and the Riverfront Development Corporation.
Federal sentencing guidelines are no longer mandatory, but if Peete got three years before and Roscoe Dixon got five-and-a-half years earlier this year, Peete could get at least that much if convicted.
Who are the political winners and losers?
First Tennessee Waltz, now this. The pat response is that Memphis as a city and all Memphis City Council members are losers in the sense that this feeds the perception, fair or not, that Memphis politics is inherently corrupt. But it's not
that simple. On Tuesday, the council voted 6-6 on a non-binding resolution asking Peete and Ford to voluntarily resign. Council members Ford, Mitchell, Joe Brown, Dedrick Brittenum, E.C.
Jones, and Barbara Swearengen Holt opposed the resolution. Peete was absent
In other words, half the members of the City Council think it is perfectly fine for members arrested for taking bribes in the course of their public duties to continue to serve as public officials. Next year is a city election year. Tuesday's gut-check session began with Ford shaking hands and ended in a burst of tears, ovations, and Hallmark Card sentiments. But it is hard to imagine a city and a city council more seriously fractured than Memphis.