What if Rickey Peete had said "hell no" to Joe Cooper's bribe back in 2006?
I think the former city councilman — who did not say no and is serving four years in prison — had a rare opportunity to drastically change the course of his own life and even the course of Memphis history with an existential choice at that fateful meeting.
I thought of Peete last week while I was interviewing his former Beale Street associates Onzie Horne and John Elkington for this week's cover story. Both of them have known Peete since his first bribery conviction nearly 20 years ago and his political comeback and reelection to the council.
Horne replaced Peete as head of the Beale Street Merchants Association, which represents the businesses that employ some 700 people on Beale Street.
"The whole episode involving Rickey was emotional for them," Horne said. "You can see the hurt in them still today. Because they trusted him and were so disappointed and were genuinely hurt for Rickey and his family. Only now are they completing the healing. I think that's why they went so long before getting a new director."
Elkington is head of Performa Entertainment Real Estate, the company that manages and leases the district, where Peete regularly ate lunch at the King's Palace Café with bigshots such as Jerry West and Michael Heisley, owner of the Grizzlies.
"He could bring people together and make things work out," Elkington said. "For all the negative things people say about him, he had the ability to form coalitions and make people work together. He had a way of working with merchants to get them to not go to the lowest denominator and instead believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. It was such a shock to everyone down there. I mean no one had a clue what Rickey was doing."
I heard similar generous comments after Peete resigned from the City Council from former colleague Tom Marshall and from Jeff Sanford, executive director of the Center City Commission, where Peete was chairman of the board. Some of this was political courtesy and refusal to kick a man when he was down. When a council member gets himself or herself appointed to several powerful boards it can be a danger signal. And rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful can stoke greed and envy.
But Rickey Peete, with his 100-watt smile and hearty handshake and his courtesy and attentiveness in council meetings, was one likable politician. Like a lot of other people, I wanted to believe he was a reformed rogue.
So what if he had said no to Good Old Joe? I think he would have been a hero. I know he would have stayed out of prison. He would have derailed undercover federal investigations of political corruption in Memphis, possibly for years. And he might even have achieved his dream of becoming mayor of Memphis.
Consider this fictional reconstruction of the scene that didn't go down in Peete's office in the fall of 2006.
"So how about it, Rickey, three large to support my man's billboard deal?"
"Hell no, Joe, you're offering me a bribe. Been there and done that. Prison sucks. It wouldn't surprise me if you're wired up right now and working with the FBI. I hope you are because I'm going to the federal building right after I kick you out of this office, and then I'm going to tell the United States attorney, the FBI, and the media what a scumbag you are. I'll be the one playing tapes. Rickey Peete is not for sale." (big smile)
It's not like this never happens. Famous Mississippi trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs is going to prison for five years because Circuit Court judge Henry Lackey refused to take a $50,000 bribe and instead reported it (three days later) to federal prosecutors, who wired his office and set up a sting. A year ago, Scruggs was the toast of Oxford and one of the richest men in Mississippi. In a few months, he'll be a prisoner.
With his theatrical flair and political ambition, Peete could have played Cooper and the FBI like a fiddle. Imagine the headlines: "Peete Busts Feds in Foiled Sting; 'Furious' at Being Targeted." So why didn't he? I suspect because the FBI, Cooper, and Peete himself knew damn well he would take the money because he had taken it before, probably more than we know.
Ethics rules, corruption laws, and prosecutions are fine, but our political culture ultimately comes down to individual decisions about right and wrong. It's their choice, and ours.