Rule of Law

In corruption cases, if you're not on tape, you might escape.

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Everyone's guessing who's next in Tennessee Waltz and Main Street Sweeper.

Did Joe Cooper set up anyone else? Who did Michael Hooks give up to get such lenience? Did Roscoe Dixon drop any names before he checked into prison? And so on.

Going on two years after the first Tennessee Waltz indictments were handed up, this seems clear:

First, talk is cheap, but federal prosecutors and the FBI are going to make a case against a public official when they have tapes -- preferably both audio and videotapes and preferably of more than one incriminating meeting.

Second, cooperation and taking blame pays big time. And going to trial, testifying, and publicly questioning the government's case will cost you big time.

Tapes made by undercover cooperating witnesses Tim Willis and Cooper nailed Dixon, Hooks, John Ford, Kathryn Bowers, Edmund Ford, and Rickey Peete. The names of several other Memphis politicians and developers have come up. None of them has been indicted, although that could change when a grand jury meets next week with evidence gathered from the offices of Peete, Ford, and the Memphis City Council.

Maybe it's a function of reality television, cell-phone cameras, and the Internet, but the unofficial standard of evidence in corruption cases is "If you're not on tape, you might escape." It's easier to convince a jury and -- this is important given the disproportionate number of indicted officials who are black -- the general public when you have pictures and tapes of money changing hands. A complicated paper trail combined with the testimony of convicted felons like we saw in the 1993 trial of Harold Ford Sr. doesn't cut it these days. The government lost that case. And a jury isn't likely to convict solely on the testimony of Joe Cooper either.

On the second point, Hooks got 26 months while Dixon got 63 months. The underlying offenses were basically the same. Both took money for influence from representatives of the fictional E-Cycle Management company. In fact, Hooks took over $24,000, while Dixon only got $9,500, plus another $6,000 in bribes on other legislation that "predicated" him for the sting. Neither man had a criminal record.

So what's the difference?

Dixon went to trial, lied to the FBI in a last-chance interview, and testified falsely on the witness stand. He consistently said he was trapped and selectively targeted. (Predicated or not, he had a point. How does the FBI know that other politicians are not predicated?) On the tape where he fidgets in front of stacks of money on Willis' coffee table, he is Everyman, as tragic and conflicted as any creation of playwrights David Mamet and Arthur Miller. As a documentary film, Dixon on tape would win awards. Dixon's courtroom defense, however, was ineffective and inconsistent. After calling several character witnesses, he was sentenced by U.S. district judge Jon McCalla.

Hooks pleaded guilty. He blamed himself and stayed on message. He was woeful, abject, remorseful, self-critical, unflinching before the media. When he wants to, Hooks has the charm and expressive personality of an actor. He asked only his attorney, Steve Farese, to plead for lenience at his sentencing. He is the nephew of esteemed former judge and civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks, who was in court Wednesday. He was sentenced by U.S. district judge Daniel Breen.

Conclusions: Exercising your right to trial by jury, as violent criminals do at public expense every day, can cost you in a political corruption case -- financially and in prison time. Sentencing guidelines are just that, guidelines. And McCalla is a harsher sentencer than Breen, at least on the basis of these cases.

There is no constitutional foundation for punishing someone for not helping the government. After he was indicted, Dixon did not flee, hurt anyone, or tell others to break the law. Dixon got three more years -- not because he committed a more serious crime or had a different criminal history but because he exercised his constitutional right and did not say he was sorry as convincingly as Michael Hooks did. He was punished more harshly for being uncooperative and bumbling than he was for breaking the law.

As McCalla said in another context at Dixon's sentencing, "That's wrong. Somebody has to say it."

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