VOL. 122 | NO. 217 | Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Peete Sentenced to More Than Four Years in Prison
By Bill Dries
Former Memphis City Council member Rickey Peete was sentenced to four years and three months in prison this morning for taking bribes to vote for a zoning matter.
The sentence from U.S. District Court Judge Hardy Mays was the maximum possible under sentencing guidelines that took into account Peete’s 1989 conviction for doing the same thing during his first tenure on the council.
“The most disturbing thing about this is that Mr. Peete’s done this before,” Mays said. “I do not consider it punishment so much. … I see it as what is required to be consistent with the seriousness of the offense.”
Deja vu all over again
Peete pleaded guilty in June to one count of extortion shortly after resigning the council seat he won in 1995 after his release from prison. He and fellow council member Edmund Ford were charged in late 2006 with taking bribes from former County Commissioner Joe Cooper, who was recording their conversations for the FBI. Ford is awaiting trial and has maintained his innocence. Cooper’s cooperation came after he was caught helping drug dealers launder money through car purchases. He has pleaded guilty to a money laundering charge and is awaiting sentencing.
Peete had little to say today as he entered and left the federal building with a group of two dozen family members and supporters. Among the supporters were State Representatives Ulysses Jones Jr. and Larry Miller, City Council member Joe Brown and City Council member-elect Janis Fullilove.
In court, a somber Peete spoke in a halting and low voice as he stood before Mays.
“Your honor, I am humiliated, remorseful and ashamed of my actions, which have brought me to this time and place,” he said. “I am sorry for the embarrassment this has caused my family, my friends and the community. As a man I accept responsibility for my error in judgment.”
Peete urged Mays to consider his sentence “in the context of my long career as a public servant.”
“Though I’ve faltered, during my life I’ve tried to serve humanity.”
Votes for sale
Assistant U.S. Attorney Vivian R. Donelson stressed the fact that Peete had been elected by voters not once, but twice and had betrayed the trust of voters each time.
“The offense was not spontaneous. It was planned. He helped strategize how they were going to do this,” she told Mays. “Mr. Peete was determined to sell his vote.”
Donelson argued that Peete’s good traits were outweighed by his determination to profit illegally once again from holding a public office.
“He freely engages in this conduct. He has no respect for the law,” she said. “He was going to commit this offense. He was going to sell his vote.”
Defense attorney Handel Durham, who also represented Peete in the 1989 case, told Mays that the guilty plea was “more than likely” the end of Peete’s political career and that a lower sentence of three years and five months was “more than adequate to punish a 52-year-old man.”
Mays said Peete’s return to politics is unlikely but added that he “can’t say it’s impossible.”
Mays heard from three Peete supporters who talked in glowing terms of Peete’s political service.
He agreed to an extent, calling Peete an “educated and intelligent man.”
“I don’t sentence evil people. I sentence good people who do stupid things,” he said as he talked of protecting the public and repairing an undermining of public confidence in government.
Then and now
Peete, who began his public career in the mid-1980s as a city school board member and then city council member, served a two and a half year prison sentence for his first extortion conviction.
A jury convicted him of taking a bribe from a developer to vote for a zoning case. The developer was recording the conversations for the FBI. Even after giving up his council seat, serving his time and emerging from prison, Peete never apologized for his conduct in that case. He was elected to the council in 1995 and re-elected two more times.
Peete’s prison assignment and the date he is to report to prison will be determined by the federal Bureau of Prisons. Peete will be allowed to report to prison voluntarily when those details are decided. He is free until then.