BY JACKSON BAKER | JUNE 20, 2007
Rickey Peete bit the bullet in Federal Court Wednesday, pleading guilty to the crime of extortion, but, as is his wont at times of catastrophe, the recently resigned councilman tried to do it all with a smile, even getting off one good sally. As Judge Hardy Mays went through a required litany of formal questions, asking at one point if Peete had ever suffered from mental illness, Peete answered, "Only in a political context."
Though he was in court expressly to give up his former not-guilty plea and acknowledge culpability on one of the counts against him - specifically in the matter of extorting thousands of dollars in payments from informant Joe Cooper in return for his help in a zoning matter - Peete was at first inclined to quibble. Asked to state his crime, Peete tried to pass it off as letting himself be "misguided." Mays persisted, however, and the defendant finally admitted to taking bribes.
As he surely knew, the government was in possession of videotaped evidence that showed him going through a charade with Cooper whereby the two of them, sitting in the Beale Street Merchants' Association office where Peete once held sway, wrote notes back and forth about the terms of the bribe. The FBI sting, which also resulted in the indictment of councilman Edmund Ford, was dubbed "Operation Clean Sweep."
As a second-time offender (in 1989, then first-term councilman Peete was found guilty of extorting money from a developer and did two years) Peete might have feared worse than he got - provisional "sentence guidelines" of from 41 to 51 months.
Asked afterward whether the sentence might carry an unspoken provision that Peete would testify for the government in a future trial, his attorney Steffen Schreiner answered defiantly, "Rickey Peete is a man. Joe Cooper is a government snitch," and insisted that his client would never snitch.
Peete's other attorney, Handel Durham, backed off what had appeared to be an earlier statement about racial imbalance in the series of recent FBI stings, saying that all he had done was assent to a published observation to that effect from Rhodes College professor Marcus Pohlman.
Peete himself talked briefly to the media, confining himself to brief statements of apology to friends, family, and "the citizens of Memphis" for his actions. His formal sentencing will take place on Thursday, September 20.