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Senator Named Co-Conspirator in Federal Indictment

(Story created: 7/15/05)

Yet another powerful lawmaker is the target of a criminal investigation. State Sen. Jerry Cooper is named as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in a new round of federal indictments.

It all stems from a land deal first exposed by a NewsChannel 5 investigation.

At the center of the investigation: the powerful chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Jerry Cooper from Warren County, and a piece of land that he couldn't sell until he got your money.

In a federal indictment just made public, three people involved in the sale of Cooper's land are charged with fraud and money laundering, with the senator himself listed as an "unindicted co-conspirator."

Former federal prosecutor Gary Blackburn said being an "unindicted co-conspirator" means you could be next.

"It means that they have identified him as a person they say participated in a conspiracy to violate the law," Blackburn said.

Among those indicted: Anthony Auyer, the man who bought Cooper's Warren County sawmill back in 1998.

The indictment says part of the conspiracy was that Cooper "would and did use his political contacts, connections and influence" to help Auyer obtain a bank loan.

Auyer wanted a railroad connection. Senator Cooper wanted $1.3 million for the land.

Our investigation discovered that Sundquist administration officials approved a state grant to pay for the rail line. And documents show it was approved at Cooper's request.

"That piece of property was going to bring 40-50 jobs to my home county. Yes, I did -- could make money off that property if that rail spur came in -- without question," Cooper told NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams two years ago.

"And you used your position?" Williams asked him.

"But, Phil, I'd do that for everybody else."

Auyer was able to get almost huge bank loan. Among the bank's owners: Lt. Gov. John Wilder.

"Phil, you're not treating me right, and you know that," Cooper told Williams.

As for Cooper, he's in a situation like former President Nixon, who was named as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the Watergate indictments.

"Usually when you have an unindicted co-conspirator, it means one of two things. That person is already a cooperating witness -- or they are seeking witnesses against that person," Blackburn said.

Now, the senator isn't commenting about his new label as co-conspirator.

The state grant for the rail line to Cooper's land was eventually blocked.

The indictment also names a property appraiser, who counted the unbuilt rail line in the estimated value he put on the land.

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