Months-Long Ethics Investigation Interviewed Just Two People - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Capitol Hill Corruption

Months-Long Ethics Investigation Interviewed Just Two People

(Story created: 4/4/06)

Senate chairman Jerry Cooper isn't the one on trial, but he is very much at the center of a federal trial in Chattanooga. Now, there are questions about how thoroughly the Senate's ethics committee investigated questions about the powerful state lawmaker.

At the center of the federal trial in Chattanooga: a land deal first exposed by NewsChannel 5.

The person actually on trial is McMinnville property appraiser James Passons. He's accused of helping Cooper, D-Smartt,  inflate the value of a sawmill he was trying to sell.

During opening statements, prosecutors told jurors that Cooper was in deep financial trouble. That's when, they say, he got state officials to approve grants and loans of more than $750,000 to help him sell his sawmill.

Prosecutors say bureaucrats didn't want to make one of those loans, but former Economic Development Commissioner Bill Baxter "got a call from Jerry Cooper. That loan gets made."

This comes just days after a Senate ethics subcommittee cleared Cooper of an ethics complaint alleging that he had misused his office.

But, it turns out, the investigation that led to that decision wasn't very far reaching.

"It's my understanding that he followed it much as any state senator would, he did not apply any pressure," Senate Democratic Caucus chairman Joe Haynes of Goodlettsville told NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

But for the first time, Haynes and the vice chair of Cooper's committee, Steve Southerland, acknowledged that their joint, months-long investigation of Cooper's ethical conduct really didn't involve that many people.

"How many people did you interview?" Williams asked Southerland, R-Morristown.

"We interviewed two," he replied.

The only ones interviewed, they say, were former Economic Development Commissioner Bill Baxter, along with one of his staff members, Phillip Trauernicht.

"I asked him [Baxter] about six different ways if Sen. Cooper applied any pressure or tried to make any special requests, and he answered them all the same that he had not," Haynes said.

That despite documents that show state officials agreed to pay for a $300,000 railroad connection to the senator's land "at the request of Senator Jerry Cooper."

Even though the ethics committee showed in the John Ford case that it could put witnesses under oath, this case was different.

"Were they under oath?" Williams asked Southerland.

"No," he replied.

Haynes said, "I had worked with both these gentlemen previously in my life. I had known them to be honest, honorable people."

But retired FBI agent Hank Hillin says an investigation that just interviews two people, who aren't providing sworn testimony, isn't much of an investigation at all.

"It's just not the way to conduct an investigation," he said. "I learned a long time ago in investigating state government that people have hidden agendas."

"I'm not an FBI agent," Haynes answered, "so I don't know their investigative techniques."

Hillin says that's no excuse.

"If you can't do the job, get somebody who can -- because this stinks to high heaven."

In Ford's case, the ethics committee appointed a special counsel.

Haynes and Southerland say they think they did a good job of pursuing the questions surrounding Cooper.

Cooper is named as an "unindicted coconspirator" in the criminal case -- which, usually means, he could be next to be prosecuted.

There's also been a big development with the people who bought Cooper's land.

The couple who bought his sawmill for almost $2 million pleaded guilty to bank fraud, money laundering and conspiracy.

Their attorneys say they are willing to testify against the senator, if necessary.

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