NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Capitol Hill Corruption
Ethics Panel Won't Probe Deal Involving Senator, Lt. Governor's Bank
(Story created: 8/31/05)
FIRST ON 5: A day after a lawmaker pleaded guilty to corruption charges and blamed "business as usual" on Capitol Hill, a Senate ethics panel met to decide whether to investigate one of their own. But you were not invited.
Still, our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams invited himself --and what he found there raises even more questions.
"That's what we are here for, to serve the public," said Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown.
"Why not let the public see?" Williams asked.
"I have no objections to this."
That came as members of a Senate ethics panel -- a subcommittee of the full Senate Ethics Committee -- huddled for what was supposed to be a secret meeting.
"Is there any confidential information involved here at all?" Williams asked Sen. Douglas Henry Jr., D-Nashville
"Don't know," he replied.
At issue before them: a land deal involving powerful Senate chairman Jerry Cooper, first exposed by NewsChannel 5, and a loan from a bank owned by Lt. Gov. and Senate Speaker John Wilder.
A recent round of bank fraud indictments references Cooper as an "unindicted co-conspirator."
"The indictment -- on mine -- there it states 'sealed,'" said Southerland.
"Well, it's been unsealed since then," Williams responded.
"That's things we need to discuss."
But while the public wasn't invited, we discovered that the lieutenant governor himself was there.
"Governor, this involves one of your banks," Williams called out. "Should the public not be allowed to listen in on this?"
"He's chairman," Wilder said, pointing to Henry.
"You're the speaker."
"I know. He just told me I wasn't a member of the committee."
Still, as the committee went behind closed doors, Wilder decided he'd better slip out.
"I was just looking around, yes, sir," Wilder told Williams.
"Just looking around? You're not here for the meeting."
"I'm going back to my office now."
"But you were here for the meeting."
"I came. I thought I might sit in, yes."
"So why should the public not be allowed to sit in."
"I'm not chairman of the committee."
Even when the panel decided to let our camera in, they decided not to proceed with an ethics investigation of Cooper, saying they don't have enough information about the land deal.
Instead, they voted to wait until Cooper is indicted or until more evidence comes out at the trial of the three people who've been indicted.
"Right now, we don't have the loan," Southerland told Williams. "We don't have the appraisal. How much is it going to cost to get all of this?"
But we found the loan documents, the appraisal and other documents showing how Sen. Cooper used his position -- all right in the state's files. All it cost us was: 10 cents a page.
As for the indictment's claim that Cooper used his political influence to get a loan for the man who bought his property, they apparently decided not to even ask the lieutenant governor.
"He asked me if my bank might be interested in making a loan to this person that he sold his plant to," Wilder told Williams.
The lieutenant governor says he passed on Cooper's interest to the bank, although he says he abstained from the final decision on the loan.
Activist Barry Schmittou filed ethics complaints against Cooper and Wilder. He says it's an example of business as usual.
"They are afraid to go forward. They have no intention to go forward."