Evidence Raises Questions About Senator's Money - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Capitol Hill Corruption

Evidence Raises Questions About Senator's Money

Sen. Jerry Cooper, outside federal courthouse in Chattanooga Sen. Jerry Cooper, outside federal courthouse in Chattanooga
Cooper lawyer Jerry Summers Cooper lawyer Jerry Summers
Drew Johnson, Tennessee Center for Policy Research Drew Johnson, Tennessee Center for Policy Research
Registry of Election Finance Registry of Election Finance

(Story created: 6/13/07)

The federal trial of state Sen. Jerry Cooper ended in a victory for him on bank fraud charges.

But it raised even more questions about whether he misused money from his campaign accounts.

Evidence left over from the federal court trial shows tens of thousands of dollars that the Warren County Democrat may have secretly pocketed out of his campaign funds.

"It appears what the senator did is patently illegal," government watchdog Drew Johnson tells NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

Johnson heads the Tennessee Center for Policy Research.

In fact, bank receipts obtained by NewsChannel 5 -- Government Exhibit 31 -- show repeated checks written off of the "Jerry Cooper for State Senate" account and deposited directly into the Coopers' personal account.

In just one month, three $8,000 checks were involved in such transactions.

All totaled, an IRS agent testified, over a two-year period, Cooper transferred $95,000 to himself.

Cooper never reported those transfers on the campaign financial disclosure statements required by law.

"Taking $95,000 from essentially work money and putting it into his personal account, there's no question that that is illegal," Johnson says.

Jerry Summers defended Cooper at trial.

"Is there any doubt that the was pocketing campaign funds that he should not have been?" Williams asks Summers.

"Well," Summers answers, "I think there were some funds that should have not been transferred to his personal account, Phil."

Even Summers admits that the senator was so deep in debt -- his bank records show checks being repeatedly bounced -- that he may have taken some money that wasn't his to take.

"They may have been short and may have done it. That may have been a mistake. I'm sure that the Registry will address that."

But, Wednesday, the state Registry of Election Finance -- whose job is supposed to be regulating how candidates spend their campaign funds -- decided NOT to address it.

The board has adopted the policy that it will not order investigations based on what it sees in the media.

Instead, it decided to wait and see if anyone wanted to file a complaint asking them to investigate.

Board chairman Will Long says he was inclined to ask Registry staff to investigate, but did not speak up when his fellow board members showed no interest.

"I went and actually pulled these checks," Williams tells Long. "Why could the board not do that?"

"They could have," the chairman replies. "They chose not to."

Drew Johnson says, "If you or I took $95,000 out of our work account and put it in our personal account, we would be in jail right now."

He says if the Registry won't do something about these checks without someone filing a complaint, his group -- the Tennessee Center for Policy Research -- will do just that.

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