NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Capitol Hill Corruption
Federal Grand Jury Indicts Senator for Land Deal
(Story created: 8/22/06)
A powerful state senator faces up to 30 years in federal prison. This comes after a federal grand jury indicted Sen. Jerry Cooper for his role in a land deal. It was a land deal first uncovered by an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation.
NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter, Phil Williams, first uncovered the scandal three years ago.
"It looks like that you were helping yourself," Williams told Cooper back in February 2003.
"I'm sorry, Phil, you are totally wrong," the Warren County Democrat responded.
The questions involved a Warren County sawmill that Cooper sold -- only after convincing state officials to approve a $300,000 grant 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 said.
"And you used your position?" Williams asked.
"But, Phil, I'd do that for everybody else."
But, now, in the indictment, a federal grand jury charges that what Cooper did was a crime -- specifically: bank fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy.
The grand jury says that Cooper concocted a scheme "to obtain money and property by false and fraudulent pretenses, representations and promises ... with reckless disregard for the truth."
Anthony Auyer is the man who bought Cooper's property, thanks to a loan from a bank owned by Lieutenant Governor John Wilder.
The indictment does not allege any wrongdoing by the state's number two political figure.
But Cooper's indictment raises questions about an investigation by the Senate's ethics committee.
That was triggered last year when a grand jury indicted Auyer and named Cooper an "unindicted co-conspirator."
"Give the federal government time to prosecute the case," Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Haynes suggested to fellow committee members.
"This is all going to be back in our laps at some point in the future, I can assure you."
A months' long ethics investigation of Cooper didn't go very far.
"How many people did you interview?" Williams asked Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown.
"We interviewed two," he replied.
Now, the Senate Ethics Committee may not be able to avoid the issue.
The Senate's rules say, once a member is indicted, he is automatically removed from any leadership position unless he appeals to the ethics committee.
The U.S. Attorney's Office says a warrant has been issued for Cooper's arrest.
But the senator has agreed to surrender to authorities sometime next week.