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NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Capitol Hill Corruption

Ethics Committee Can't Find Evidence Against Senator

(Story created: 3/31/06)

A legislative committee says it can't find any evidence that powerful Senate chairman Jerry Cooper broke the Senate's ethics rules. That despite a federal bank fraud case, heading to trial next week, in which Cooper was named an unindicted co-conspirator.

It all involves a land deal first uncovered by NewsChannel 5.

Cooper, D-Smartt, chairs the powerful Senate Commerce Committee.

And, as our investigation first discovered, when he had a piece of property that he couldn't sell, he convinced that state officials who come before his committee to spend $300,000 of your tax money to build a railroad connection to his land.

"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's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams back in February 2003.

"And you used your position?" Williams asked.

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

After trying for months to sidestep the issue, a Senate ethics subcommittee has now issued a report saying it found no evidence that state officials "received any pressure" to approve the state grant.

It added, "Nothing in the interviews we conducted suggested that Senator Cooper used his official position as Senator to unduly influence" the state money.

Activist Ben Cunningham notes that documents we uncovered show that money for the rail line was approved "at the request of ... Senator Jerry Cooper."

There was also a related letter that Cooper wrote... on Senate letterhead.

"He has power. Nobody questions that, I don't think," Cunningham says.

"He doesn't have to walk into a room and say, 'Hey, I'm a senator. I approve your budget' or 'I have a say in approving your budget.' He doesn't have to say any of that. It's all implied. Everybody knows it."

In fact, the man who bought Cooper's land goes on trial next week, along with two others.

According to the indictment, prosecutors plan to show that part of the scheme was that Cooper -- an "unindicted co-conspirator" -- "would and did use his political contacts, connections and influence" to help the buyer get a loan from the bank.

"At this point to say, we've got all the information we need," Cunningham adds. "We can now make a judgment. There's just no credibility in that."

The senators who wrote the report did not return our phone calls.

But with the potential for more evidence to come out next week, some around the legislature say they're more than a little suspicious about the timing of the committee's decision.

Prosecutors have said they still expect others to be indicted, a possible reference to Cooper himself.

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