Mary Kasten was Nathan Cooper's political mother. When he was a student at Southeast Missouri State University in the 1990s, he lived in Kasten's home.
In 2004, he won the Missouri House seat Kasten held from 1983 to 1995. And when his life, both politically and professionally, was unraveling this week, he visited her to tell her he would plead guilty to federal crimes.
"I am so shocked and terribly disappointed and terribly sad," Kasten said Thursday.
To find some good in the bad, Kasten pointed out that the charges have no connection to his work as a lawmaker, which she called "wonderful." But that is little consolation, she added.
"I didn't learn about this until the night before last," Kasten said. "He told me. He knew it was coming. It was a total shock.
"He is like a son to me and Mel," Kasten said, referring to her late husband. "He didn't ask for advice. He just told me what he thought was going to happen, and that was a shock."
The ties between Cooper and Kasten were forged when he was a president of the College Republicans. Over the years, Kasten said, she had allowed students to live in her basement, perhaps 15 or more in all. Cooper stayed the longest.
"It was kind of an open house, and some would come and stay awhile," she said. "We never charged anything. They all became kind of family."
Kasten's reaction to Cooper's downfall reflected, perhaps more deeply, the reactions of many in the area who knew him. He pleaded guilty to two federal immigration fraud charges, felonies that will likely bring him a sentence of 30 to 37 months in prison, a federal prosecutor said.
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who as a state senator employed Cooper as an intern, said he had been aware Cooper was facing trouble for most of the past year. But the information was vague, he said, and he had not asked Cooper about it directly.
"I am deflated, depressed and disappointed today as I am anytime someone proves unworthy of the public trust that is so precious," Kinder said.
He noted that Cooper is a Republican and that the U.S. Justice Department is part of a Republican administration and that the case against Cooper was pursued without any apparent political favoritism.
"Having said that, Nathan was my friend and today is my friend, and I will try to stand by him and support him in this dark hour for him and his family," Kinder said.
Another of Cooper's close political allies and treasurer of his campaign committee, Victor Gunn of Cape Girardeau, said he heard that the guilty plea was coming Wednesday evening. "I am quite shocked it happened," Gunn said. "Nathan is a fine individual and apparently made a mistake, and it sounds like he has owned up to it."
Other area political leaders also used the word "shocked" to describe their feelings. Diane Diebold, Cape Girardeau County collector and vice chairwoman of the Cape Girardeau County Republican Central Committee, said she saw Cooper a couple of days ago and had spoken to him two or three times in recent weeks. "This is a shock," she said. "I don't know what to tell you."
Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson, reached while on vacation, said the case was "terribly tragic." He, too, said he took some comfort in the indications the federal crimes had nothing to do with Cooper's work as a legislator.
Cooper had done some business with First Missouri State Bank, where Knudtson is executive vice president. "I always believed him to be an upstanding guy," he said.
In a statement issued Thursday, Gov. Matt Blunt praised Catherine Hanaway's office for the prosecution as an appropriate response to Cooper's "serious criminal misconduct."
While Republicans sought to find good in the guilty plea by pointing out that it had no connection to official legislative duties, Democrats from the county and state party sought to portray the actions as part of Republican corruption.
"I don't know what his personal motivations are, but it seems this is a recurring problem for the Republican Party down to Cape Girardeau County," said Brenda Woemmel, chairwoman of the Cape Girardeau County Democratic Central Committee.
Jack Cardetti, spokesman for the state Democratic Party, tried to tie Cooper and Blunt together, calling Cooper one of Blunt's "top lieutenants" in the legislature. He noted that several Cooper law clients received lucrative state license office contracts and gave significant contributions to Blunt's campaign.
"Today's guilty plea pulls back the curtain on the culture of corruption created by Matt Blunt and his legislative allies," Cardetti said in a prepared statement.
Cooper and state Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, were allies on many issues. Lipke, a former prosecutor, said Cooper "experienced a serious lack of judgment in the private practice of law as it pertained to the immigration issue. He pled guilty, and he is going to have to suffer the repercussions as would anyone who violates the law. But there is no indication there is anything that had to do with his official duties."
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