NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Capitol Hill Corruption
Ethics Committee Won't Ask Cooper About Land Deal
(Story created: 10/12/05)
A federal grand jury says state Sen. Jerry Cooper was a co-conspirator in a bank fraud scheme involving a piece of land. But the Senate Ethics Committee decided not to ask the man they call a friend to tell them everything he knows.
Instead, the Ethics Committee finally voted to have two of its members to interview state bureaucrats about whether Cooper, D-Smartt, used his position for personal gain.
NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams uncovered the questionable land deal two years ago.
At the center of the Cooper investigation: a Warren County sawmill that the financially troubled state senator couldn't sell. That is, until he convinced state officials to approve a $300,000 grant to put in a railroad connection to his property.
Documents first obtained by NewsChannel 5 show the grant was approved at the request of Jerry Cooper.
"Yes, I did -- could make money off that property if that rail spur came in -- without question," Cooper told Williams at the time.
"And you used your position," Williams asked.
"But, Phil, I'd do that for everybody else."
Wednesday, members of the Senate Ethics Committee found themselves once again wrestling with the issue after a federal grand jury indicted the man who bought Cooper's land and two others on bank fraud charges.
The grand jury listed Cooper as an "unindicted co-conspirator."
"Where you cross the line is using your office as a state senator," said Ethics Committee chairman Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville.
"There are some questions that I do honestly from the bottom of my heart believe were unanswered and we need to find out the answers to those."
Ramsey wanted to ask Cooper about how he got the state grant, along with a big state loan, that helped him sell his land for a whopping $1.3 million.
But Democrats were concerned about putting their colleague in a position where he'd be forced to exercise his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
"I wish we didn't take it on ourselves to add to the load he's carrying," said Sen. Douglas Henry Jr., D-Nashville.
Senate Democratic Caucus chairman Joe Haynes of Goodlettsville added, "Give the federal government time to prosecute the case. This is all going to be back in our laps at some point in the future, I can assure you."
In the end, instead of asking Cooper, the committee agreed to let the chairman appoint two members to interview the officials who approved the money for Cooper's land.
Then, they'll see if they there's evidence to suggest an even wider investigation is needed.
Still, Ramsey admitted that one potential problem may be that those state officials will not be under oath. He says he'll be watching to determine if that may be a problem.