Our first reaction to getting the news last week about the latest FBI sting exposing corruption in local officeholders was to say, "What, again?" -- or words to that effect, accompanied by an expletive or two. Then we gave out a long collective sigh. And, to be frank, made a few jokes (thereby vindicating Freud's suggestion that humor was, at least in part, a self-defense mechanism).
Then we began the process of serious analysis, wondering if perhaps this latest civic embarrassment didn't amount to an overstatement. The terms employed by the FBI -- "Operation Clean Sweep" and "Operation Main Street Sweeper" -- seemed a little grandiose, frankly, as descriptions of processes whereby pol/lobbyist Joe Cooper and city councilman Rickey Peete, both previous offenders, were targeted and squeezed into incriminating themselves. A third figure caught up in the operation, Councilman Edmund Ford, was -- to some, at least -- a surprise of sorts.
Cooper, after all, had walked into a trap of his own making. Working as a Cadillac salesman, he had maximized his profits by some sleazy contract arrangements involving finding stand-ins (including his own wife) to sign for purchasers who lacked acceptable credit but had up-front money for down payments. Several of these buyers were drug dealers -- one of whom presumed to stiff Cooper by withholding his off-the-ledger cash payments for several months. So what did old Joe do? He called the police, reporting a "stolen" car, which, when found at the address of the defaulting drug dealer, was discovered to contain marijuana and counterfeit money. One question led to another, and soon the dealer was wearing a wire and incriminating the not-too-clever Cooper, who revealed on a surveillance tape that he knew the cash payments he had been receiving came from illegal proceeds.
From that, it was evidently but a short step to turning Cooper, who was soon wearing a wire himself and helping catch Peete and Ford in the act of accepting bribes to vote for a zoning project Cooper was lobbying for.
Sordid business, and in one sense the feds had lucked into the collars. But the fact that such open graft could occur in the wake of the well-publicized Tennessee Waltz arrests and trials (and stiff sentences, for that matter) was truly staggering -- a standing rebuke to the larger community, unless dealt with swiftly and decisively. For their deft no-nonsense action in this regard we are in debt to the FBI and to the office of U.S. attorney David Kustoff, who in his short tenure has managed to serve notice that governmental corruption and white-collar crime will not be tolerated.
We wish we could say something equally complimentary about the City Council, half of whose members on Tuesday employed disingenuous reasons to reject a request for resignation by the two accused councilmen. The vote was six to six. Peete was absent, but Ford (who, not surprisingly, voted nay) was not. Yes, both Peete and Ford are entitled to their day in court but not to even one more day as official representatives of the people whose trust they are accused of betraying.
We can only hope that justice will be administered both sternly and swiftly.