The fall of a political insider

Sunday, August 12, 2007

State Rep. Nathan Cooper loved being on the inside.

In his three years in the Missouri House, Cooper hadn't amassed too much power, but the way he approached the job showed he was happy to be in the room when the big issues were discussed. He approached questions about legislative issues in a helpful, but cautious way. His answers to reporters' queries always were informative, but usually stated in a way that indicated he was holding back information that, if made public with his name attached, would make trouble for his political career.

Those characteristics were most evident when House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, was crusading against allocating state funds in any form to pay for the new Southeast Missouri State University River Campus. Cooper wanted his constituents to believe he had tried to get the money allocated as part of a House Republican plan in early 2006 to divvy up proceeds from the sale of the MOHELA student loan portfolio. However, he wouldn't speak out publicly against Jetton for fear of losing favor.

Now Cooper's likely to be going inside a prison. And even when things were bleak, he was willing to give some insight into what was happening, even when it was his own life that was unraveling.

On Thursday afternoon, Cooper called the Southeast Missourian to explain himself after pleading guilty in federal court to two felonies related to immigration law. Cooper, a lawyer, set up sham companies as fronts to provide visas and other documentation to for at least two trucking companies, Pullen Bros. Inc. of Sikeston, Mo., and CalArk Trucking of Mabelvale, Ark.

In the conversation, Cooper talked about being overzealous, of the need to dot every "i" and cross every "t" when it comes to immigration law. But he also admitted crossing clear lines, not fuzzy ones, in his zeal to make money off the clients he was serving.

And his attorney, Joel Schwartz of St. Louis, said that any competent immigration attorney would know that the schemes Cooper engaged in were criminal acts.

Cooper started crafting the scheme in September 2004 after winning the Republican primary for the Missouri House, but before the unopposed November election that would officially make him a lawmaker.

When he was running for a second term last year, the investigators who would uncover his scheme began looking at Cooper intensely either before or immediately after the election, and certainly Cooper was aware of the investigation by the time he swore to uphold the laws and constitution for a second term in January. Federal prosecutor Jim Crowe of St. Louis would only say that Cooper was aware of the criminal investigation before the year started.

Two sides of the issue

A quote that will haunt Cooper as he goes through the final weeks before his Oct. 19 sentencing is when he told a Southeast Missourian reporter in July 2006, when he was on a special House committee on immigration, that "We need to protect the honesty and integrity of our laws within the immigration system."

Republicans trying to do damage control on the issue were quick to point out that the allegations against Cooper had nothing to do with his legislative service. John Hancock, a top campaign adviser to Gov. Matt Blunt and former executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, drew a parallel to Democratic state Rep. John Bowman of St. Louis, under federal indictment and fighting the charges, for allegedly taking kickbacks in a credit-card scheme.

Democrats, meanwhile, sought to make the issue about Cooper's ties to business associates who received lucrative license office contracts from Blunt. The license office issues resulted in another federal investigation, conducted by federal prosecutor Bud Cummings in Arkansas when the federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of Missouri, Catherine Hanaway, recused herself. Jack Cardetti, the Democratic Party spokesman, said in a statement that the "guilty plea pulls back the curtain on the culture of corruption created by Matt Blunt and his legislative allies."

'Too loyal to snitch'

Cummings is one of the prosecutors whose dismissal by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is the subject of intense scrutiny in Washington. His office declined to prosecute anyone on the fee-office issue.

But at least one Republican of Cooper's generation, John Combest of the Vandiver Group in St. Louis and a one-time aide to then-Sen. John Ashcroft, said the GOP should be sweating over what Cooper could reveal. In an entry on his blog, www.johncombestblog.com, he speaks directly to Cooper.

Combest said he and Cooper used to butt heads a decade ago. "Remember those days? You were a bright, driven up-and-comer who made all the right moves, and I was a smart-ass child with a foul mouth and a chip on his shoulder."

And he leaves a warning for his fellow Republicans: "Nathan is probably too loyal to snitch on all the crooks he knows. But I wish he would."

Cooper is giving up $50,000 in legal fees he received from clients aided by his illegal scheme. Money is something Cooper keeps a close eye on. He lent his first election campaign $50,000, at interest, and paid himself back during the 2006 campaign from money donated by contributors that included numerous groups with business before the legislature.

And after a campaign disclosure report was filed that declared the debt paid, a reporter noticed Cooper had not paid himself the interest. Cooper filed an amended report, carefully calculating the interest to show he owed himself another $9,408.79. He raised money and had a check issued for the interest amount.

New committee

Even to the end, Cooper seeks to retain some control over his political future and what lingering influence he may have. Instead of returning $51,537 in campaign donations he took in during the first three weeks of July, he took that money, along with the other money remaining in his campaign treasury, and parked it last Monday in a new, noncandidate committee called "Friends of the 158th." His campaign treasurer, Victor Gunn, helped Cooper with the move. When asked, Gunn said he did as he was told and didn't ask questions.

The money can't be used to elect a new state representative for the Republican Party because of newly reinstated campaign donation limits. Unless the money is shuffled through a series of other committees, only $325 will be available to the candidate the GOP picks to replace Cooper.

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Cape Girardeau Republican, said Cooper made a wrong choice by trying to hold on to the money. "I would think he would have to at least offer to those contributors the return of their money and let them make the calls," Kinder said.

But as last week's court action showed, Cooper hasn't always made good choices.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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