VOL. 123 | NO. 120 | Thursday, June 19, 2008
Cooper Sentenced: Six Months in Jail, Six of House Arrest
By Bill Dries
BUSTED: Former Shelby County Board of Commissioners member Joe Cooper was sentenced to six months in prison and six months’ house arrest Wednesday for money laundering. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES
Former Shelby County Board of Commissioners member Joe Cooper was sentenced Wednesday to six months in prison and six months of house arrest for helping drug dealers launder their drug money.
Cooper’s sentence could have been closer to three years under federal sentencing guidelines. But prosecutors recommended a lower sentence because of Cooper’s role as the government’s key witness in the corruption trial of former Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford Sr. and the guilty plea of former Memphis City Council member Rickey Peete on bribery charges.
U.S. District Judge J. Daniel Breen agreed. But Cooper’s conviction more than 30 years ago on loan fraud charges when he was a county commissioner played a significant role in Breen’s decision to impose a prison sentence.
After he was caught in a federal drug case in August 2006, Cooper agreed to record conversations with Peete and Ford in which he paid them cash supplied by the FBI, allegedly to vote for a billboard zoning case before the council.
Peete pleaded guilty to a bribery charge and is serving a four-year and three-month prison term. Ford went to trial last month with Cooper as the government’s key witness. Ford was acquitted of all six bribery and extortion counts.
Some jurors said later their decision was based on the sometimes confusing conversations Cooper was having with Ford when the money was passed.
At the time he was cooperating with the FBI, Cooper also was pursuing several loans and other business deals with Ford on behalf of developers.
Despite that, federal prosecutors recommended Breen depart from the voluntary sentencing guidelines and go lower.
“We perceive that there was a risk,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Colthurst in referring to the danger to Cooper in the case.
But Cooper’s attorney, Kemper Durand, argued for no jail time because of the ill health of Cooper’s wife, Betsy.
He submitted a physician’s statement about her condition but neither he nor Cooper would talk specifically outside the courtroom about her health other than to say she is unable to drive herself anywhere.
“He is her only family support in the area. He is her sole financial support. Without him, she would have no place to go,” Durand told Breen. “What he did is commendable. He’s certainly not a danger to the community.”
Cooper owned up to the money laundering in a general way.
“I’d like to apologize for being here today,” Cooper told Breen. “I did a wrong thing. I made a stupid mistake. I made several stupid mistakes. … I’d appreciate any consideration you might give me – probation or whatever.”
Colthurst drew the line at no jail time. He pointed to Cooper’s 1977 conviction on federal charges of conspiracy to misapply loan funds. The conviction ended Cooper’s career as an elected leader and he served four months in prison after resigning his seat on the commission.
Colthurst told Breen that there were “marked similarities” between that offense and the money laundering offense that involved Cooper leasing cars in the names of other people to drug dealers. He suggested that Breen delay Cooper’s prison report date to address his wife’s health problems.
Breen agreed with Colthurst on both points in sentencing Cooper to six months in prison.
“It is somewhat identical,” Breen said of Cooper’s 1977 conviction. But he said Cooper’s cooperation in the corruption probe was “timely and significant.” As to any danger Cooper might have faced for wearing a wire, Breen said, “There was no specific threat. But it was a factor.”
He also delayed Cooper’s eventual prison report date for six months so Cooper can arrange for his wife’s care.
Cooper immediately waived any appeal of the sentence under the terms of his plea deal with prosecutors and told reporters after the hearing that he agrees with the sentence.