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NC5 Investigates: Capitol HIll Corruption

Board Puts Off Decision on Senator's Fine

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Former Sen. Jerry Cooper Former Sen. Jerry Cooper
Tennessee Registry of Election Finance Tennessee Registry of Election Finance

Should a politician be punished for stealing money from his campaign -- and still be allowed to make a profit on the deal?

That's what a lawyer for Jerry Cooper argued as the former state senator went before regulators, hoping for mercy.

It follows questions about Cooper's spending raised by our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

You'll remember that the state Registry of Election Finance hit Cooper last month with an unprecedented fine of $120,000.

Wednesday, the Warren County Democrat apologized for skipping that hearing, as his lawyer urged the board to cut Cooper a break.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'd just suggest to you that I'm tired," Cooper said. "That's the reason I didn't show up."

A week after resigning from the Senate, Jerry Cooper told the Registry of Election Finance that his recent bank fraud trial, which resulted in his acquittal -- as well as his drunk driving accident -- had left him unwilling to keep answering questions about his conduct.

"I'm just tired, and I didn't want to fight any more," he later told Phil Williams.

His lawyer, Mike Galligan, told the board, "Senator Cooper is not saying that he should not be fined for this."

And Cooper offered no defense about evidence from the bank fraud trail, showing that he had written 23 checks off his campaign account and illegally deposited them into his personal account. All totaled: about $95,000.

Williams asked Cooper, "So how do you defend taking the money in the first place?"

"Well," Cooper answered, "that goes back to '99 or 2000. I'm really not sure. I don't have any receipts... what I've spent that money for. We've seen the checks and, I'm being very honest, I don't remember."

Cooper's lawyer argued that the $120,000 fine imposed last month by the Registry was just too steep of a price.

"This is so far beyond what you've ever done before," Galligan said, later adding: "This isn't like these are government funds or anything."

One board member called it a betrayal of his contributors' trust.

"It's not misappropriation of government of funds," said Registry member Patricia Heim. "But there was an implied consent upon receipt of those funds that it would be used strictly for campaign purposes."

Outside the hearing room, Cooper said he wasn't sure his contributors really cared.

"It's been in the news, what, maybe a month or two months or something -- and I've not had one person call me."

Cooper's lawyer argued that, under state law, the most that the Registry could fine Cooper for pocketing the $95,000 would be about $14,000 -- which would leave him with a profit of $81,000.

If you treat his pocketing of campaign funds as one violation, Phil Williams, that's probably what state law says. But if you treat each of the 23 checks as a separate violation, Cooper probably doesn't have much of an argument.

So the Registry decided to postpone a decision on Cooper's request for reconsideration until it could get a legal opinion from the state attorney general.

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