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Indictment Raises Doubt About Senator's Political Future

(Story created: 8/23/06)

There are questions about the future of powerful state Sen. Jerry Cooper. It comes after a federal grand jury indicted him for his role in a questionable land deal.

Around the legislature, it was business as usual for the committee that oversees the state's finances -- a committee once headed by this man, state Sen. Jerry Cooper.

But outside the committee room, fellow lawmakers were buzzing about news of Cooper's indictment on federal charges.

"It's a sad day to me," said Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta.

But when we went looking for the man at the center of all the buzz, he was no where to be found.

"I hope and pray everybody out there waits and passes judgment after the jury gets finished with this case -- and don't do it beforehand," Curtiss added.

Cooper, who now chairs the Senate's Commerce Committee, was charged Wednesday in a three-count federal indictment with bank fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy.

It involved a Warren County sawmill and a land deal first uncovered by a NewsChannel 5 investigation.

Prosecutors say Cooper "improperly used his political influence and contacts in order to sell the plant and avoid bankruptcy."

Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Goodlettsville, said, "From my investigation, I didn't believe that he did anything wrong.  Obviously, federal agents have access to a lot more information than obviously I had."

Haynes and other members of the Senate's Ethics Committee had refused to hire a special counsel to investigate Cooper -- even after an indictment of the man who bought the senator's property named Cooper as an "unindicted co-conspirator."

"Jerry Cooper has been a very valuable member of the state Senate," Haynes added, "and I believe he's entitled to a fair trial like anybody under these circumstances."

Under the Senate's rules, an indicted member is automatically suspended from his leadership position -- unless he appeals to the ethics committee. 

But, with the legislative session effectively over, some question whether Cooper might lose his position all together when new committee chairs are named in January.

"I think it may be tough to get a chairmanship with a cloud like that hanging over your head," Curtiss said, "but that's something that the Senate will have to deal with."

But the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee says he plans to take this issue one step farther when lawmakers reconvene in January.

Sen. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, says he'll push for a Senate vote, asking that Cooper not participate in any way until the charges are resolved.

He tried that last year after several senators were indicted as part of Operation Tennessee Waltz.

He didn't have enough votes.

But he's hoping that next time, it'll be different.

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