VOL. 123 | NO. 95 | Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Cooper Testifying In Ford Trial
By Bill Dries
Former Shelby County Commissioner Joe Cooper will continue his testimony Wednesday in the federal corruption trial of former Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford Sr.
Cooper, who took the witness stand late Tuesday afternoon, is the key government witness in the trial which is expected to last all of this week. When he met with Ford between August and November 2006, Cooper was cooperating with the FBI, recording the conversations and passing money provided by the FBI to Ford.
Cooper contends the money was bribes for Ford’s vote on a zoning matter. Ford’s attorney, Michael Scholl, argues the money could have been for several business transactions Ford and Cooper had in common.
When the trial resumes Wednesday before U.S. District Court Judge Hardy Mays, Cooper is expected to guide the jury through the playing of several audio and video recordings of his meetings with Ford.
For a half hour Tuesday, jurors were introduced to Cooper, a one time elected official who lost his commission seat in the 1970s and did prison time following his conviction on federal loan fraud charges.
Cooper has tried numerous times since his prison release to win elected office again but has never succeeded. He did succeed in getting hired by several millionaire developers and businessmen starting about 12 years ago to solve their political problems with zoning matters.
Cooper told Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Colthurst that he was hired as a consultant “because of my governmental experience.”
“If there was a hang up, I would go represent them,” he testified. In the case of Ford, Cooper said he did that for billboard developer William H. Thomas Jr. to win council approval of zoning changes that would permit a second billboard facing the interstate to be built on a mini storage facility on Steve Road.
He continued pursuing that goal and others for Thomas after he became an FBI informant.
He became an FBI informant after federal drug agents arrested him for helping convicted drug dealers launder drug money through car purchases made in cash. Cooper himself was arrested by federal agents in August 2006 in an undercover sting operation in which one of the drug dealers he was helping wore a wire to record conversations.
“It turned out that a customer of mine … was a drug dealer. I made a stupid choice in allowing him to do it,” Cooper said. Korreco Green got behind on the payments and Cooper couldn’t find him. Cooper had also helped Green post bond on a murder charge. “He swore on a Bible,” was how Cooper justified his involvement in the murder case. One of the cars Cooper leased Green was seized in a drug raid with lots of cash inside. Green immediately gave federal agents Cooper’s name and Cooper verified that he and Green knew each other by filing a court petition seeking to get the car and the cash back.
“It was all downhill from there,” Cooper testified. “That’s when it clicked in my mind that they were involved in drugs.”
FBI agent Dan Nedemeyer testified that at first, Cooper refused to cooperate in what federal agents rapidly realized could be the beginning of a new public corruption probe. “He was reluctant to say the least.”
It wasn’t Cooper’s first conversation about public corruption and cooperating. He was approached by FBI agents during the Tennessee Waltz corruption sting of 2005 and even met with them for about an hour. Cooper wouldn’t cooperate and testified Tuesday that he also wasn’t completely truthful about what he knew of government corruption. “I was doing the same thing myself. … I would be incriminating myself.”
About a year later, Cooper was being fitted with a hidden digital recorder in hopes of getting a lesser prison sentence on the money laundering charges. The “game plan” he told Colthurst, was “to pass money for favors.” Cooper is scheduled to be sentenced in June.
Cooper continued to represent Thomas, for a retainer of $5,000 a month, as well as remind Ford to make overdue payments on a Cadillac that developer Rusty Hyneman had helped Ford finance. And as an FBI informant, Cooper testified he was also trying to talk Ford and other council members into supporting what he claims was another goal of Thomas’s – having John Shepherd replaced as chairman of the local Board of Adjustment. Until Cooper’s testimony, the effort to replace Shepherd had been noted in the indictments with no indication of whether it was part of the sting or something Cooper came up with on his own. Neither Thomas nor Hyneman are charged with any criminal wrongdoing. Both were listed on a jury questionnaire as potential witnesses in the trial.
Scholl grilled Nedemeyer about the FBI’s approach and its reliance on Cooper’s word in pursuing the corruption case.
Nedemeyer told Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Laurenzi that if Ford had refused the money Cooper offered, “My guess is we would have had to take another approach.” He added the sting might have been terminated.
Scholl was skeptical.
“Y’all weren’t planning on stopping this investigation, were you? How many times would you have gone back?” Scholl asked.
“It never came into play because he took the money the first time,” Nedemeyer replied.
Scholl told the jury in his opening statement that Cooper had a habit of bringing up a lot of different matters in his talks with Ford despite prompting from his FBI handlers to stay on topic. Ford was getting money from Ford in connection with one of the other business matters not as a bribe, Scholl argued.
Nedemeyer said agents tried to get Cooper to count out the money on a table for Ford but said Cooper rejected the idea. “Mr. Cooper didn’t feel comfortable doing that,” Nedemeyer testified.
But Laurenzi said the overdue car note Scholl cited as an example of a legitimate transaction was for $927 and Cooper’s payment to Ford was $3,000.