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Senator Wants Trial Moved, Reasons Kept Secret

(Story created: 9/15/06)

An attorney for indicted state Sen. Jerry Cooper asked a federal judge to seal an affidavit and other documents he plans to file with a request to move Cooper's politically laced case to a court in his Senate district.

Cooper, D-Morrison, is charged in a borrowing scheme involving the 1999 sale of his lumber mill in Warren County.

The scheme was first exposed by an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation.

Cooper's trial on charges of bank fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy is set for Nov. 6 in Chattanooga. His attorney, Jerry Summers of Chattanooga, said Thursday he was asking to move the trial to Winchester for the convenience of likely witnesses.

Winchester, about 65 miles west of Chattanooga, is part of the East Tennessee federal court district and is closer to Warren County. It also is part of the Senate district Cooper has represented since 1985.

"Nearly all the witnesses in this case are from over in the Winchester area," Summers said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Humble was out of town Thursday and not available for comment. Summers said Humble has told him he opposes moving the trial.

Summers declined to comment about the affidavit and attachment he wants sealed.

"If I reveal the contents of the affidavit, I am really defeating the reason that it be under seal," Summers said.

The indictment charging Cooper says the "purposes of the conspiracy were to obtain by fraud, misrepresentations and deceit" money to be used by Cooper to pay debt and avoid bankruptcy.

A previous indictment in a related case contended Cooper used "political contacts, connections and influence" to help buyers of the lumber mill property get a $1.77 million federally insured loan from BankTennessee.

Bank records show Cooper contacted Senate Speaker John Wilder, a part-owner of BankTennessee and also Tennessee lieutenant governor, about the loan and that Wilder's involvement was key to the bank granting it.

Wilder, D-Mason, initially said he spoke with Cooper about the loan but later said he was mistaken and never spoke to Cooper about it.

The property buyers, Anthony and Teresa Auyer of Huntsville, Ala., pleaded guilty to several counts of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. Auyer was sentenced to 34 months in prison and his wife, who handled financial transactions for her husband's rail tie business, was sentenced to 18 months.

A jury acquitted a co-defendant, real estate appraiser James Passons of McMinnville, on charges that he inflated the value of the lumber mill property that Cooper sold to the Auyers.

An attorney for Passons, MikeGalligan of McMinnville, said Wednesday that Passons would be willing to cooperate with the government, if asked.

Defense attorneys have said the government's real target in the case was Cooper, who while maintaining his innocence has resigned as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Cooper is accused of helping Anthony Auyer obtain the bank loan and contacting then state commissioner Bill Baxter to arrange $485,000 equipment loan from the state. Records show the property sale was accompanied by a commitment from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development that a grant would be issued to Auyer to build a rail spur. State officialssaid the spur was never built.

Cooper, who is free on bond pending trial, is the fourth sitting state senator to be indicted in the past 18 months. The others plus one former state senator and a sitting House member were charged in the FBI's Tennessee Waltz bribery sting.

(Copyright 2006 by the Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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