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Michael Hooks Jr.: The story you haven’t heard

Michael Hooks Jr. has been out of jail 23 months. The fact that he was there at all makes even him scratch his head in disbelief. The former Memphis school board commissioner served 30 days in the Federal Correctional Institution in Yazoo, Miss. Michael Hooks Jr. has been out of jail 23 months. The fact that he was there at all makes even him scratch his head in disbelief.

 Michael Hooks Jr.
Michael Hooks Jr. (Photos by Christopher Parks)

The former Memphis school board commissioner served 30 days in the Federal Correctional Institution in Yazoo, Miss. He was one of a dozen elected officials or their aides tried and convicted in the public corruption investigation dubbed Tennessee Waltz.

Hooks pleaded guilty to his part in an illegal invoice scheme involving Juvenile Court and dating back to 2001. Prosecutors have said the Tennessee Waltz investigation, which also snared his father, former Shelby County Board of Commissioner Michael Hooks Sr., grew out of the younger Hooks’ indictment.

While much has been written about the corruption investigation involving Hooks, his own words mostly have been missing – until now.

Hooks, who bears a family name with long, distinguished roots in the African- American community, recently talked with the Tri-State Defender about his life before, during and after Tennessee Waltz. His story, which will be shared over the next three weeks, is crafted to mostly let his words speak for themselves.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing was that I had to admit that I was wrong,” said Hooks.

“You asked me if I was mad. I’ve been mad, I’ve been angry, I’ve been depressed and I’ve been demoralized. You think about how that silly mistake got you caught up, over a few thousand dollars.”

While the memory is unsettling, Hooks said the entire episode “is in his past. I’ve learned from those mistakes. And I promised Morgan (his daughter) and Kenya (his wife) that I’m not going down any roads like that any more.”

‘My aim in life’

“My aim in life really, genuinely has been to help people. I knew I wanted to make money and I knew I wanted to help people. I admire folks who have such a passion for a specific occupation, but I never really had that. I’m still trying to figure that out,” Hooks said during a conversation with the Tri-State Defender at a local coffee shop.

While entrepreneurialism seems to run in the Hooks family’s blood, Hooks said he also has “genes that centered around helping people.”

Does he feel pressured by that?

“I feel pressure because our community needs help,” he said.

 Out of college in 1993, Hooks turned down offers to work in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., choosing to come “home” primarily because of family concerns. He had grown up shuttling between Chicago and Memphis and now his mother and father were living in the same city.

And, he said, there was his affinity for Memphis.

“I love Memphis. It’s becoming a love and hate relationship, but I am definitely passionate about my city.”

Growing up, Hooks remembers people often telling him that he was going to be a politician like his father. He rejected that notion, seeing the toll it was taking on his father and weighing the opportunities his father had to do other things.

“We came from a family of entrepreneurialism. Dr. (Benjamin L.) Hooks (the NAACP’s former national executive director) and his nephews had Mahalia Jackson’s Chicken, Hooks Brothers Photography, they had a grocery story, the cleaners…I mean they had some real black commerce going on in those days. I really wanted to be a part of that,” he said.

Fate intervened. District 4 school board commissioner Archie Willis III – an interim replacement for Peggy Prater Harvey who died while in office – resigned. Hooks had been mentoring young kids and becoming increasingly more aware that the children of Memphis needed help. He decided to run, telling only a couple of close friends, both teachers.

“I went to work. I didn’t take anything for granted. We knocked on doors. I walked that community. I didn’t want to be known as Michael Hooks’ son. I wanted to be known as Michael Hooks Jr.”

Eventually he got some advice from his father, who Hooks thinks decided to back off and let his son make the most of the opportunity to do it on his own. He had been campaigning since he was five or six, whether it was for his father, his stepmother (Janet Hooks, a former City Council member), or former Congressman Harold Ford Sr. and others

“Since I was a jackrabbit I had been jumping out of cars, campaigning, shaking hands and hanging out in the back rooms with (former sheriff and county mayor) Bill Morris, you name it. I grew up around that. I used to have to do my homework in the back of the City Council Chambers,” he said.

His vow never to be a politician notwithstanding, Hooks took the plunge and embraced politics. He reasoned that with a school board salary of $5,000 a year, he still would have time to “get his entrepreneurialism on.”

He won – easily defeating three other candidates – and got to rolling.

The entrepreneurial tract

 Michael Hooks Jr.
Michael Hooks Jr. sees himself on the way to a new future powered in part by lessons he learned from his missteps.

Upon his return to Memphis after being away at college, Hooks had applied for several jobs. He took a position as an independent contractor for the Tennessee Human Rights Commission and held on to it for four or five years.

“And once again I was able to help people. We are talking about employment discrimination, race discrimination,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hooks dibbled and dabbled in entertainment, picking up on something he and friends did in college – promoting a few small-scale events. Later, he opened up a kiosk in the Peabody Place Mall with a friend.

“I thought I was going to get rich off this little kiosk. I had a business plan to open them up all around the state. But I didn’t understand the business trends then. When Peabody Place opened up it was the newest thing on the planet earth.”

The store offered the trendiest jewelry, scarves, hats, and clothes and then expanded to cologne. The money was moving. But then September 11 (2001) hit, followed by a winter swoon. By December, January, they could not make payroll. It was one of several valuable lessons along the entrepreneurial tract.

The next level

In need of a part-time lobbyist in Nashville, James Kerley of the Mid-South Carpenters Regional Council approached Hooks, who replied that he didn’t do that.

“On that Sunday, I was sitting at dinner with Uncle Ben and dad and the rest of the family. They asked, ‘What went on in your life this week?’ I said, ‘Mr. Kerley asked me if I would do some lobbying.’ They said, ‘What did you say.’ I told them that I said ‘no, I don’t do that.’ They said, ‘You fool, you lobby us every week.’”

Hooks became a part-time lobbyist.

“At the time, the small contract barely paid my way up and down the road in my little Celica.”

Young, independent, African American and well connected, Hooks was in a rare position. During his first legislative session, he built bridges that broke race and partisanship barriers. As a result, three other future clients sought him out. That’s when he decided to formalize his operation, set up a limited liability corporation and go to work.

Two or three years later, as Hooks recalls, he had built a strong alliance with one of the largest public relations firms in the state.

“I was working with Fortune 500 companies, little old me.”

Soon, he began to recognize his potential.

“I said I am in this room with CFOs and CEOs, I need to better understand their language. I need another degree. I need some more education.”

Law school had always been in “the middle of his mind” and he had interned once at the prestigious Baker, Donaldson law firm.

Business school came into the picture. At the time, he was dating his future wife, Kenya, who had a passion to attend law school. Both got their school wishes. Then they married.

“First of all, my dad gets indicted (for bribery) the week of the wedding,” said Hooks.

“My wife was strong. I said, ‘Baby, I’m sorry.’ She said, ‘What are you apologizing for?’ I said the situation with my dad. People are going to be looking down at us. She said, ‘If you are worried about what people think, they weren’t your friends any way.’ She said, ‘I could care less if they come or not.’

“It was truly like God was preparing us for the next wave because honest to God at that point I thought I was clear (of any charges.) These cases were about bribery and I know I didn’t take any bribes.”

The next wave

No federal officials had contacted Hooks at that point and in his mind “there really was nothing for me to be concerned about.”

Hooks continued to work his way through the executive MBA program at the University of Memphis. He had gotten one C, and that’s all you could get. His business was booming, with him turning down opportunities coming at him fast. While representing the carpenters union he had become passionate about the apprenticeship program and he pushed for workforce development in the other projects he worked on.

It was a fast-paced time, with lots of studying. Add to the mix that his wife now was pregnant.

One of the hardest tests he had to take in the MBA program fell on a Saturday. He felt good, like he was conquering the world, about to get his MBA. The following Monday, he got to his office early, planning to catch up on things he had been putting off for months.

“I’ll never forget. I was getting my briefcase out of the back of the car. They jump out of unmarked cars and said, ‘FBI, can we talk to you for a minute.’ I’m spooked, you know. I said, ‘Man, about what?’”

Next week: Part 2 – ‘The hardest part of all of this’

Week three: Part 3 – ‘The real power is outside’


0 #1 philthom4s 2013-12-19 09:27
Didn't he become one of the better attorneys? Is he still even alive?
Phillius | http://www.fwcoloradolaw.com

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