Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Joe Cooper's Longest Day

Posted By on Wed, May 14, 2008 at 4:00 AM

It was lobbyist and government witness Joe Cooper who was "on trial" Wednesday and not bribery defendant Edmund Ford. And by mid-afternoon he was reduced to tears - and the defense attorney had not even begun his cross-examination.

Cooper, the star witness against Ford, spent the entire day in the witness chair. His morning went well enough, with assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Colthurst taking him through a series of videotapes that Cooper secretly recorded in 2006. The tapes show Cooper making $8,900 in payments that prosecutors call bribes to Ford while Ford was a member of the Memphis City Council. Cooper was representing William Thomas, who wanted approval for a land project and a billboard on Steve Road at Interstate 240.

Cooper spoke in a loud and confident voice, sometimes stretching his answers so that Colthurst had to cut him off. The videotapes showed Cooper, wearing a tiny hidden camera disguised in a buttonhole in his shirt, carrying on folksy conversations with Ford at the former councilman's funeral home and in a car. The meetings began in late August of 2006 and ended in late November when Ford was arrested and Cooper was relocated to a motel in Jackson, Tennessee because he feared for his safety.

The afternoon, however, was a different story. When Colthurst asked Cooper to explain that the FBI gave him $10,000 for living expenses because he couldn't get a job, Cooper broke down crying after saying he and his wife were "about on the street" at one point. A recess was declared.

When the trial resumed, Colthurst quickly finished his questions and it was defense attorney Michael Scholl's turn. Scholl bored in on Cooper's 1977 federal conviction on bank loan charges and the fact the he served four months in prison as an indication that Cooper is unreliable and has incentive to hand Ford over to the government. Then Scholl turned to Cooper's guilty plea on money laundering charges in 2007. And for nearly two hours, Scholl confronted Cooper with all the details of his involvement with drug dealers. Several times, Cooper's recollection was shaky and he seemed to back away from one point in particular - that he thought he was leasing luxury cars to a young man who was an electrician and in the music business and did not suspect until months later that he was a drug dealer. Cooper faces a sentence of 30-37 months according to sentencing guidelines.

When Cooper said, "I am here to eliminate a cancer that was on the City Council," Scholl shot back, "You probably became the cancer of this City Council, didn't you?"

"It takes two to tango, sir," Cooper replied.

"You like to tango, don't you," said Scholl.

Whether the theatrics had any effect on the jury, of course, is not known. Ford and his wife Myrna are expected to take the stand later this week, and the government will shift attention away from Cooper and back to the videotapes that show Cooper carefully counting out stacks of $100 bills and handing them to Ford.

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