A New Zealand trucker. A letter from the office of Nathan Cooper. And a skeptical federal border guard.
Those were the ingredients that eventually led to the political and professional demise of a state representative Thursday when a federal prosecutor announced that Cooper pleaded guilty to two federal felonies.
Cooper's scheme was uncovered when the trucker tried crossing the Canadian border. The trucker had in his possession a letter on Cooper's legal office stationery that claimed he was waiting for a visa renewal to work for another firm. The letter was noticed by a federal border guard, assistant federal prosecutor Jim Crowe said.
"It seemed odd to him," Crowe said of the guard's response. "It probably would have worked real well with a state patrol person if they had seen it."
Now Cooper, a Cape Girardeau Republican who serves the 158th district, faces 30 to 37 months in prison. He said he will resign his House seat. He will also lose his license to practice law.
While the maximum penalty for the two crimes is 15 years, he is cooperating with prosecutors to catch others involved in immigration fraud schemes and will be given more lenient treatment for his cooperation and because he has no criminal record.
In an interview with the Southeast Missourian Thursday afternoon following his court appearance, Cooper said the complexity of federal immigration law "has a tremendous number of regulations and requirements, and they need to be followed."
But when asked about the specific actions he took, Cooper said: "I am not trying to evade any responsibility. I was trying to help clients, and I went further than I should have gone."
Cooper's attorney, Joel Schwartz of St. Louis, said many of Cooper's actions are open to interpretation under federal law. But too much of what Cooper did crosses the line into criminal activity, Schwartz said. "On the big portion, there is no argument, there is no debate. It is very clear, for lack of a better term, that Nathan Cooper had committed illegal acts, and on those points there is no debate."
Cooper appeared Thursday morning before U.S. District Judge Jean C. Hamilton and waived his right to be charged by a grand jury indictment and pleaded guilty to two felonies. He will be sentenced Oct. 19.
In addition to the prison term, Cooper must forfeit $50,000 paid by his legal clients for his help in obtaining the fraudulent visas.
Cooper's cooperation is already helping in other cases, Crowe said. In Seattle, Omega "Meg" Paulite, a Philippine-born U.S. citizen, was arrested. She was charged with selling Cooper more than 100 visa approvals designated for the hospitality and temporary service industries, Crowe said.
Cooper provided those visas to truck drivers.
"Cooper developed a scheme to convince the government to issue improper visas and otherwise to impede the lawful operation of the H2B visa program in a number of ways," a news release issued by the federal prosecutor's office in St. Louis said. The release also stated that Cooper:
* admitted to the fraudulent creation of shell companies,
* used those shell companies to apply for visas to be used for other companies,
* and deceived law enforcement about the immigration status of his client's workers, and about the purchase of visas from other contracts that were illegally transferred to his client's workers.
Cooper built his law practice on immigration law. He had a large number of clients who owned trucking companies, including Pullen Bros. Inc. of Sikeston, Mo., and CalArk Trucking of Mabelvale, Ark. The companies faced shortages of qualified drivers.
To fill the need, Cooper formed Retail Trucking LLC and Speedy Express LLC and obtained visas for drivers he claimed he intended to employ. He allowed the truckers to remain on the payroll of their original employers. Neither of Cooper's companies owned or leased trucks or paid the drivers directly, Crowe said.
Crowe would not say whether the investigation would include charges against the trucking firms. "The people he was representing are very savvy business people, particularly in their industry, and make heavy use of foreign truckers."
Their likely defense, Crowe said, is that they relied on Cooper's advice and guidance. "These people have been involved in using foreign drivers a lot longer than Nathan Cooper has been a lawyer."
Dispatchers at Pullen Bros. Inc. and CalArk trucking said Thursday night the owners were out of the office and unavailable for comment.
The visas Cooper sought for the drivers indicated they were seasonal workers to be used for a limited time to complete a surge of work. But the companies that used the drivers have a year-round need for employees that does not slacken significantly in any season, Crowe said.
The companies Cooper created were complete frauds, Crowe added. "Those entities have no existence beyond the piece of paper that reflects their existence."
Crowe would not say exactly when the investigation began, but he said it dated from "before the beginning of the year."
Cooper announced after the court hearing that he would resign his House seat, which he won in 2004. In an interview with the Southeast Missourian, he said he hadn't decided the timing of his resignation.
In the plea agreement, Cooper also admitted to lying to Missouri officials as part of the scheme. Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said he likely would not pursue state charges against Cooper for those actions.
"When a person is going to prison for 30 to 37 months in federal prison, there is no sense for state taxpayers to take care of them," Swingle said. "There would be no prosecution purpose in trying to tack on more time than a person is going to be serving."
Reporters Mark Bliss and Matt Sanders contributed to this report.
335-6611, extension 126