Wearing a gray pin-striped suit, a businesslike striped tie, and - ultimately - a look of anguish, Michael Hooks Sr., whose resignation as Shelby County commissioner had taken effect at 12:01 a.m., formally pleaded guilty Monday in federal court to accepting $24,000 in bribes during the course of the FBI's Tennessee Waltz sting. "An error in judgment affects a lifetime," a visibly contrite Hooks said to reporters afterward. 'I have nobody to blame but me. I don't blame the sting operation, I don't blame the set-up, I blame Commissioner Hooks. And for that, I will pay for it the rest of my life."
Hours later, state Senator Kathryn Bowers, another Tennessee Waltz indicee, postponed her own day of reckoning by seeking and receiving a delay until September 5th as a time for a "final report" in which she will state her plea.
Presiding in both instances was U.S. District Judge John D. Breen, who earlier had approved a plea agreement between Hooks and the U.S. Attorney's office, and set December 6th as a sentencing date.
In his brief statement to reporters, Hooks went on to say that he took "sole responsibility" for actions, committed in 2004 and 2005, that resulted in his taking a total of $24,000 in FBI cash from individuals working under cover and posing as representatives of a fictitious computer-disposal firm known as E-Cycle Management. "I knew better and should have done better," Hooks said. He said his family had been affected by the scandal and he was ready to accept "any judgment that's handed down."
Announcing the terms of Hooks' plea agreement in court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim DiScenza had briefly recounted the series of incidents, all documented by audio- and video-taped evidence, in which Hooks hads asked for and accepted cash to help repair a personal "deficit" of $38,000. Asked by Judge Breen if DiScenza's narration had been accurate, Hooks replied, "Basically."
Attorney Steve Farese appeared on Hooks' behalf, along with lawyer Marc Garber from Atlanta. At one point while DiScenza was outlining the events incriminating Hooks, Farese put a supportive hand on Hooks' back.
Farese would tell reporters later that the government's allegations, followed by an indictment of Hooks as part of the Tennessee Waltz sting, had "killed his [Hooks'] soul." He said that he and Garber had carefully screened the evidence and later reviewed it with Hooks. "I sat down for three straight days with Michael, and after I let him see transcripts and let him see recordings, he knew at that time that a trial was simply out of the question," Farese said.
Neither Hooks nor his two lawyers gave any indication as to whether Hooks might become a principal in subsequent trials of others indicted in the Tennessee Waltz. One of these is his son, Michael Hooks Jr., charged with similar actions while a member of the Memphis school board.
After the announcement in court of the guilty plea by the senior Hooks, U.S. Attorney David Kustoff issued a statement in which he said in part: ""Violation of the public trust by government officials defies the confidence that citizens expect from their representatives. The public should have the confidence that their government is not for sale. Moreover, elected officials should understand that they are held to the same standard of the law as everyone else."
In the afternoon hearing for Bowers, attorney Massey successfully sought a continuance for his client on grounds that, with the completion of discovery (the final receipt of relevant evidence, including audio- and video-tapes from the government), Bowers' team needed time to digest everything.
Asking by reporters if Bowers might consider a plea other than Not Guilty, Massey said, "We're always re-evaluating our position, in light of everyone else, in light of the discovery we've had."
Though she seemed chipper, especially in comparison with the clearly depressed Hooks, Bowers acknowledged emotional wear and tear in answer to a question about the conjunction of her reelection campaign and the inexorable legal process involving her. She responded: " I'm worried about my health. Not about the election. The election spoke for itself on August 3rd with a vote of the people who nominated me. ....But this overall ordeal has really taken a serious toll on my health. Period."