There was a time when Joe Cooper would routinely describe himself, with a sly smile that in recent years revealed an ongoing dental problem, as "poor old Joe Cooper" or, alternatively, as a "poor old country boy." Since Cooper is to rural as, say, asphalt is to 'tater crops and has lived his entire life in Memphis or its suburbs, this last self-description was something of a stretch. And one that Cooper would indulge in, usually, when he was in the throes of working this or that deal.
Joe Cooper does deals — most of them legal, despite the fact that, as of last year, when he copped to a guilty plea on charges of money laundering for a drug dealer, he is a convicted felon, twice over.
His first misadventure with the law came back in the '70s, when he did a spell at an Alabama federal facility for bank fraud. That was when, as a member of the old Shelby County Court (precursor to the present County Commission), Cooper — never bashful about publicity — was doing his best to cut a figure and got in over his head financially. To extricate himself, he prevailed on several friends (including some prominent ones who shall here go nameless) to take out loans, the proceeds of which went to Cooper, who agreed to make the repayments.
"Nominee loans," they were called, and they were technically illegal — enough so that, as Cooper maintains, the Republican-appointed U.S. attorney's office of the time prosecuted them as payback for some political apostasies on Cooper's part. (A Republican himself at the time, he had run in the GOP primary against then congressman Dan Kuykendall, softening up the incumbent for a later defeat by a Cooper friend, one Harold Ford Sr., then a Democratic state senator and soon to be the founder of a local political dynasty.)
"I never really saw myself as a law-breaker on that," Cooper maintains. "This is different."
"This" was a money-laundering charge, which stemmed from Cooper's, um, creative way, as a salesman at Bud Davis Cadillac, of selling luxury vehicles to a couple of credit-poor drug dealers through car loans in other people's names. Nominee loans redux, sort of. To shorten what is a long story, one of the dealers skipped, and Cooper reported the car stolen. In the wake of that, the apprehended dealer cut a deal with the FBI, which set up a sting on Cooper. The feds, looking for some more political fish to fry in the wake of the Tennessee Waltz scandal, saw the well-connected Cooper as good bait.
Cooper recalls the day of his bust in August 2006. He'd been asked to meet the drug dealer at a suburban Piggly Wiggly store on the premise that he'd be getting a catch-up payment on the irregularly sub-leased Cadillac. When agents surrounded his car and informed him he was under arrest, Cooper at first thought it was somebody's practical joke. "Who put you guys up to this?" he said, chuckling.
That laugh didn't last long. Soon enough, he was in cuffs and, he says, was given 30 minutes to decide between some unmitigated hard time (20 years max) or cooperation with the government. Cooperation meant putting a sting on some longtime associates. Cooper reviewed his life and prospects in the manner of a man going down in an airplane and, 10 minutes later, decided on the latter option.
For all the threadbare and even seamy aspects of his persona in recent years — a state of affairs that Cooper gamely admits ("Well, let's just say I'm a colorful person; what can I say?") — the former county squire, sometime governmental aide, and perennial candidate for this or that local office does indeed have his connections.
Not one person in a thousand knows that Joe Cooper is the nephew of Sam Cooper, the late industrialist and philanthropist for whom the well-traveled boulevard that bisects central Memphis is named. Nor that the late social-conservative lion Ed McAteer, a dedicated supporter of Israel, once made a point of endorsing Cooper for one of his numerous electoral races — at least partly on the ground that Cooper was Jewish. (He is — though he is, shall we say, a country mile from being observant.)
Many is the local officeholder who will privately acknowledge a debt of gratitude to Cooper for services performed before, during, and after their successful political campaigns. Few are those, especially these days, who will own up to that publicly.
"There aren't too many people I haven't crossed paths with. Just networking is what I do, and I'm pretty good at it," Cooper says, claiming to have raised campaign money for numerous state legislators and most members of the City Council and County Commission over the years, including several who rarely if ever voted for the many measures which, as lobbyist, he pumped for. "In the situation I'm in, none of them really want to be around me now, and I understand that."
Some of the "networking" Cooper claims to have been a part of over the years:
A mission on behalf of arranging the Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson heavyweight title bout here in 2002. Cooper says that, using his own money, he rented a plane for $3,400, rendezvoused with the two fighters' managers, and connected them by telephone to Mayor Willie Herenton. "The deal was done the next day," he says.
A near-miss effort, in tandem with several council members, to arrange a referendum on deeding over Mud Island to an Indian tribe so as to facilitate legal casino gambling. It fell through, says Cooper, because "somebody in Nashville" blocked it with a legal stratagem.
Various missions on behalf of Stax founders Al Bell and James Stewart to save the legendary Memphis music label before it finally went under.
And, of course, he was for years the main factotum for the controversial late serial entrepreneur William B. Tanner, who, like Cooper, had his brushes with the law and once did federal time (for mail fraud and income-tax charges). "I can't tell you how many times Tanner would send me out on something," says Cooper, recalling, "I always made him give me $5,000 to use as tips."
On one errand for Tanner, says Cooper, he had handed out enough bills to end up in possession of Donald Trump's favorite table at the fashionable New York restaurant Le Cirque, with a late-arriving Trump complaining about the fact long and loud.
All of that may be the case, but most of Joe Cooper's lobbying efforts in recent years had a more mundane, even low-rent look to them. Which is not to say they didn't involve some significant pocket change, as did his frequent efforts on behalf of zoning requests for billboard developer William Thomas.
Testifying last week in his trial on bribery and extortion charges, the now-exonerated former councilman Edmund Ford made the curious statement that he'd thought Joe Cooper was a "millionaire." Apprised of that, the never quite financially stable Cooper opined, "Well, he knew I was a channel for some wealthy people. I guess he thought I was wealthy myself."
In any case, though he was a frequent enough visitor to the council to have something like free access to the council offices, he regarded Ford and Councilman Rickey Peete (now having pleaded guilty and serving time for his part in the Operation Main Street Sweeper sting) as "my point men."
As he puts it, "They thought I hung the moon." In Peete's case, "there was money, and that kept him happy." With Ford, the relationship was relatively ambiguous, consisting, as both he and Cooper testified, of a running exchange of favors done over the years.
The "not guilty" verdict for Ford may have hinged on that very ambiguity. The videotapes introduced into evidence in Ford's trial (shot from a miniature camera attached to a button on Cooper's Polo shirt) showed Cooper forking over hundred-dollar bills to Ford while speaking of such matters as a specific billboard measure and a request that Ford intercede with then city attorney Sara Hall.
But the tapes also showed Cooper and Ford discussing a variety of things — like Ford's own Cadillac car loan (co-signed by developer Rusty Hyneman, although Hyneman contends the signature is fraudulent) and another loan Cooper was helping arrange, with the help of another mega-developer, Jackie Welch) to help Ford purchase a new funeral-home facility. In the end, jurors would say they had difficulty finding enough of a one-to-one correlation on the specific charges of the indictment.
That frustrates Joe Cooper, who insists he did his part to get a conviction and makes no secret of his hope to get lenient treatment when he comes up for sentencing on June 18th. In the meantime, he makes ends meet for himself and his wife Betsy with a job as a deliveryman for a medical-supply company. "It was about the 500th job application I put out. Nobody wants to hire a felon." And he wonders: "How do you think I'm perceived now — as a bad person?"
He might be gratified to learn that an understandably heady and relieved Edmund Ford, on his way out of federal court following his acquittal, had this to say: "I have nothing against Mr. Cooper, and I wish him well."
That may qualify as the second surprise verdict of the last several days.