"The judge told me what I'll have to do, and I'll just have to do it," Joe Cooper said stoically on Wednesday after being sentenced by U.S. Judge Daniel Breen in federal court to six months' prison time for money laundering. After serving his time, Cooper is scheduled for yet another six-month period for house arrest, which would be concurrent with two years of probation.
Cooper was extended a six-month delay before reporting for incarceration, ostensibly to allow him time to make provisions for his ailing wife Betsy. There is speculation, too, that the long-time political player, a cooperating witness in two recent federal prosecutions, may be called upon to testify in further cases.
Cooper was arrested in August 2006 by FBI agents after a sting established that, while working as a car salesman at Bud Davis Cadillac, he had arranged proxy sales to known drug dealers. After agreeing to plead guilty, he then cooperated with federal authorities in yet another sting, in which he delivered payoffs furnished by the FBI to two city councilmen in return for their votes on zoning projects.
One councilman netted in that sting, called Operation Main Street Sweeper, was Rickey Peete, who pleaded guilty after resigning his seat and is now serving a 51-month prison term. The other councilman, Edmund Ford Sr., completed the full four-year term for his seat, which was won in last year's election by his son Edmond Ford Jr., and was acquitted in a trial last month.
The mixed results did not prevent the government from recommending what prosecutor Tom Colthurst described as a "six-level reduction" in the federal sentencing guidelines for Cooper, whose cooperation in the Main Street Sweeper cases was regarded as "timely, supportive, and extensive."
Colthurst said he could not recommend outright probation, however, since the money-laundering scheme Cooper was involved in had resemblances to the illegal nominee loans for which he was convicted in a late '70's federal prosecution that effectively terminated what had been a thriving political career. At the time Cooper was a member of the Shelby County Court, precursor to the present Shelby County Commission.
Cooper, who was represented in court by attorney Kemper Durand, acknowledged mistakes and expressed remorse,. He said he hoped his subsequent cooperation with the government would help set matters right.
Elaborating on that theme in remarks to reporters afterward, Cooper said, "When you make a stupid mistake...you have to right it." Asked whether he thought his case and the other recent ones might have a positive effect, Cooper said, "Absolutely.....People who were thinking about being bad have to think about something else. People who thought they were bullet-proof will have to check their bullet-proof vests."
Public corruption, he said, "will be either shut down or slowed down because of this."