NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Capitol Hill Corruption
Cooper Refuses to Testify in Federal Conspiracy Trial
(Story created: 3/20/06)
State Sen. Jerry Cooper, identified as a potential prosecution target in an ongoing federal fraud investigation, has refused to testify at the upcoming trial of an indicted Alabama couple and a McMinnville real estate appraiser, Cooper's attorney said.
The land deal was first exposed by a NewsChannel 5 investigation.
"This does not mean he is trying to hide anything," said attorney Jerry Summers of Chattanooga. "It is not in Sen. Cooper's best interest" to testify.
In a reversal, attorneys also decided against serving Lt. Gov. John Wilder with a subpoena to testify at the trial that starts April 4.
Summers said Cooper "misspoke" Tuesday when he told the Chattanooga Times Free Press he would welcome an opportunity to testify at the trial. Summers said Cooper received a mail notice that he was being subpoenaed but no subpoena was delivered.
"It is my practice that if a person is identified as a potential target witness or suspect, that unless I have some assurance in some way the government is not in any way attempt to prosecute them, then I instruct them they have a privilege under the Fifth Amendment not to give testimony," Summers said.
Summers advised attorneys who subpoenaed Cooper that he would not testify, with prosecutors having identified him as a "potential target" in an ongoing investigation.
"He (Cooper) does maintain his innocence and will defend himself in court if indicted," Summers said.
Cooper declined comment Wednesday in Nashville.
Huntsville, Ala., businessman Anthony Auyer is charged along with his wife, Teresa Auyer, and real estate appraiser James Passons of McMinnville in an indictment that accuses them of inflating the value of a lumber mill in Warren County.
The Auyers and Passons are charged with conspiracy, fraud and money laundering.
Cooper, D-Smartt, owned the mill, and the indictment refers to the property owner as an "unindicted coconspirator." Cooper is not charged in the case and has said he never used his influence as a state senator to help the sale.
Passons's attorney, Michael Galligan of McMinnville, also said Monday that he subpoenaed Wilder. Galligan said Wednesday that he changed his mind after Wilder told him by telephone what he knew about the transaction that prompted the indictment.
"I am not going to subpoena him," Galligan said.
Galligan also said Cooper could not be forced to testify.
The indictment accuses Passons of preparing an appraisal for the mill property on April 14, 1998, and falsely contending it contained a railroad spur. Cooper then sold the property to Auyer, with a commitment from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development that a grant would be issued to Auyer to build the rail spur, records show.
The indictment contends the unindicted coconspirator "used his political contacts, connections and influence" to help Auyer obtain a $1.77 million federally insured loan to purchase the lumber mill property.
State officials said the spur was never built.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Humble has said in recent court filings that the investigation could lead to charges against "other criminal participants."
Wilder, D-Mason, a part owner of BankTennessee that financed the loan, initially said he spoke with Cooper about the loan but later said he never spoke to Cooper about it. (The Associated Press.)