State Rep. Nathan Cooper said Monday that he will resign his seat in the Missouri House today, six days before lawmakers are scheduled to return to Jefferson City for a special session.
Cooper's decision, revealed in a short interview with the Southeast Missourian, came as new court documents emerged giving additional details of the scheme he used to illegally provide immigration visas for employees of trucking companies that employed him as an attorney.
Cooper, a Cape Girardeau Republican, pleaded guilty Thursday to two federal felony counts. Gov. Matt Blunt, during an appearance Friday in Cape Girardeau, said Cooper should quit his post or stay away from the state Capitol during the special session.
"I will be tendering my resignation to the Missouri House of Representatives effective [today]," Cooper said in a telephone interview.
Cooper's resignation will create an opening that must be filled with a special election. Under Missouri law, when a seat becomes vacant in the legislature while lawmakers are not in session, the governor "shall, without delay, issue a writ of election to supply the vacancy."
The new details about Cooper's illegal acts were revealed in an affidavit filed in a criminal case against Omega "Meg" Paulite, 36, a Philippine-born U.S. citizen. Paulite faces a single felony count of immigration fraud in federal court in St. Louis.
In the affidavit, special agent Tyson Imming of Immigration & Customs Enforcement described Cooper's cooperation with the government's investigation. Investigators first approached Cooper at his law office on Nov. 29, 2005, where Cooper admitted that truck drivers working for his legal clients had entered the country illegally and had entered or remained in the country on visas unrelated to the trucking industry. Cooper admitted to investigators that he had unlawfully purchased visa approvals from Paulite for $250 each.
Paulite, Imming wrote, knew the visas she sold would be used to illegally employ foreign workers.
The affidavit also details how Cooper, again identified as Individual No. 3, participated in a sting operation April 21, 2006, when he called Paulite to set up an additional sale of visas for $10,500 while investigators monitored the call.
Imming opened the investigation in June 2004 because of tips, received by fax and telephone, about truck drivers from Australia and New Zealand who were working in industries outside their approved fields for companies other than those who had sought the work visas.
Records checks verified the information, Imming wrote, and on April 26, 2005, four aliens were arrested at the Los Angeles International Airport as they entered the country to take jobs with a Little Rock, Ark., trucking company.
Officials with the trucking company gave investigators information about Cooper, which led to the late November visit to his law office.
Cooper declined to comment on the contents of the affidavit, adding that he had not seen it.
The long delay between the sting and Thursday's court action was a result of the need to allow another investigation into possible misconduct of Blunt in the awarding of license office contracts, assistant Federal prosecutor Jim Crowe said. That investigation -- conducted by Bud Cummings, U.S. attorney in Little Rock, after federal prosecutor Catherine Hanaway of St. Louis recused herself -- concluded with a public statement that no criminal misconduct was discovered. Cummings is one of eight U.S. attorneys fired by the Department of Justice in an episode that has generated intense Congressional scrutiny.
"We were unable to proceed in this case overall because of the investigation that was being done in Little Rock," Crowe said.
Cooper had legal clients who received fee office contracts and paid $10,000 from his campaign funds to James Harris, Blunt's director of appointments, after Harris resigned from Blunt's staff. The payment, Cooper said at the time, was a fee for campaign consulting.
"We had to pull back for a lengthy period of time until that case was over," Crowe said.
In the interview with the Southeast Missourian, Cooper declined to address whether he had been interviewed by investigators from Little Rock. He also declined to answer questions about the office contracts that were under investigation.
Cooper is continuing to practice immigration law. On Friday, he filed a lawsuit on behalf of Elvir Muharremovic, a Bosnian refugee who has waited 14 months for immigration officials to process his application for citizenship.
The court filing, Cooper said, is in keeping with the spirit of his plea agreement, which in one section bars him from being an agent for any foreign national in any proceeding involving the Citizenship and Immigration Service.
"I am winding up my legal business and taking care of existing clients to conclude their legal business and turn them over to other counsel at the appropriate time," Cooper said.
Cooper's attorney, Joel Schwartz of St. Louis, said he was unfamiliar with the details of Cooper's continuing legal practice but suggested the action Friday was intended to "not leave people in the lurch."
The intent is not to broach the agreement, Schwartz said. "He will absolutely be abiding by the terms of the plea agreement."
Cooper's license to practice law was not automatically revoked with his guilty plea. The state Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel may begin proceedings against his law license based on the guilty plea, but has not done so as of Monday.
"A lawyer is not removed from practice until the Supreme Court removes them from practice," said Sam Phillips, deputy disciplinary counsel.
Cooper said he intends to voluntarily surrender his law license.
Cooper's next appearance in federal court is scheduled for Oct. 19. He faces a maximum of 15 years in prison. He has already agreed to forfeit $50,000 in legal fees he received from the trucking company clients. As a result of his cooperation, Cooper is likely to be sent to a federal prison for 30 to 37 months.
While only two prosecutions -- Cooper and Paulite -- have resulted from the investigation so far, Crowe called the inquiry an "ongoing investigation."
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