Thursday, July 24, 2008

Graft's Good Old Days

If the FBI ran a sting these days they'd have to pose as repo men.

Posted By on Thu, Jul 24, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Joe Cooper believes there was jury tampering in the Edmund Ford trial, which the government lost in May with Cooper as its star witness.

"Some people in the jury room were intimidated," says Cooper, who was sentenced in June to six months in prison on money-laundering charges in a separate case. "I was told that the original vote was 10-2 to convict."

Cooper says he hasn't talked to any jurors but got his information from a "former elected official I have known for 25 years." He says 10 anonymous businessmen will pay $10,000 for information that conclusively proves there was jury corruption.

This is a shocking charge. That it would take 10 businessmen to raise $10,000 to bust the biggest story of the year may be the scariest evidence yet of the recession currently afflicting Memphis.

Ten thousand dollars, or one grand per businessman, to buy a little honesty. In the heyday of Memphis political corruption a few years ago, $1,000 was small change.

Former state senator John Ford used to tip that much when he was pocketing $850,000 from Doral Dental and United American HealthCare and $5,000 a month from his pals at E-Cycle Management, who boasted about their future public stock offering, which would earn them $20 to $30 million.

Former Shelby County commissioner Bruce Thompson got $270,000 from H&M Construction Company.

Former city councilman Rickey Peete got $12,400 from Cooper for supporting a single billboard ordinance.

The FBI used to pay undercover operatives like Tim Willis $7,000 a month during Operation Tennessee Waltz.

Stock IPOs, consulting contracts, SUVs and yachts, dinners at Morton's steak house, payoffs counted out in stacks of crisp $100 bills — those were the days. Now we've got the political crooks off the street, but nobody has any money. The only way an FBI sting could even be plausible these days would be if agents posed as repo men, met their targets at Wal-Mart, and offered promises of free tanks of gas and extra grocery store coupons. Cooper, of course, may be full of crap.

"I'm going to see if I can shake an acorn off a tree," he says.

Nothing if not persistent, he won't say who is "backing" the 10 grand, who told him the jury was in the tank, how one corrupt juror could convince 11 others, or whether he passed his info on to federal prosecutors and the FBI.

What most definitely isn't fiction, however, is the state of local government and the local economy.

On Monday afternoon, Shelby County commissioner Steve Mulroy and colleagues were hammering on county school superintendent Bobby Webb for his proposed $56,000 raise and its "symbolic" importance in a $353 million budget. Webb runs one of the most successful districts in the state and makes less than his peers.

Over at Chancery Court, attorneys for the city school board and Memphis City Council were arguing over how much can be cut out of the city schools' budget and who can cut it.

On Tuesday, two more regional banks, Regions Financial and SunTrust, announced their quarterly earnings. Like First Horizon last week, Regions and SunTrust wrote off millions more dollars in loans.

Regions, based in Birmingham, cut its dividend from 38 cents to 10 cents and increased it provision for loan losses by $128 million to $309 million. Morgan Keegan, a subsidiary of Regions, was a bright spot, earning $38 million in net income.

SunTrust, based in Atlanta, had positive earnings thanks largely to the sale of 10 million shares of Coke common stock that it owned. SunTrust's allowance for loan losses increased to $1.8 billion, and the company said "credit metrics continued to deteriorate."

Over in Nashville last week, John Ford was convicted for a second time on federal charges and faces additional prison time beyond the 66 months he is presently serving. How long ago, it must seem, when "Mr. 15 percent" was carrying lots of cash, driving fast cars, eating at expensive restaurants, wearing new suits, and doing deals.

We can relate, John.

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