Cooper gets 15 months

Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Former Missouri state representative Nathan Cooper left the Thomas Eagleton Federal courthouse in St. Louis on Monday after being sentenced to 15 months in prison for his part in an immigration fraud scheme. (Tom Gannam ~ Associated Press)

ST. LOUIS -- As he waited for U.S. District Judge Jean C. Hamilton to take the bench for his sentencing Monday, former state representative Nathan Cooper rubbed his nose, fiddled with his glasses and received a pat on the back from a family member.

As he rose to take his place alongside defense attorney Joel Schwartz, Cooper wiped his face and bit his upper lip.

And after Hamilton handed down a sentence of 15 months in prison, a visibly shaken Cooper, his eyes puffy from fighting back tears and virtually unable to speak, left the courtroom surrounded by dozens of friends and family members.

During the brief court appearance -- the sentencing took about 10 minutes -- Cooper offered Hamilton an apology for his actions, which he acknowledged had disappointed his family, friends and clients.

In all, Hamilton sentenced Cooper to 15 months on each of the two counts of immigration fraud. She ordered the sentences to run concurrently and added a fine of $6,000. She allowed Cooper to remain free and await an order from the Federal Bureau of Prisons for a date and place to report for incarceration.

Under federal law, Cooper could receive up to 54 days off for good behavior for every year he is in prison, meaning he could be released in as little as 13 months after reporting. Hamilton ordered Cooper to serve two years of supervised release following his prison sentence.

The sentence handed down to the Cape Girardeau Republican represents about half of what both Schwartz and assistant federal prosecutor Jim Crowe had said was likely following Cooper's Aug. 9 guilty plea on the two felony counts. At that time, Crowe and Schwartz said sentencing guidelines indicated that Cooper would serve 30 to 37 months.

Before sentencing, Schwartz sought to portray Cooper's actions as well-intentioned mistakes. He told Hamilton that Cooper "did what he could to help those who need it."

And Cooper's paid a heavy price, Schwartz said. Cooper resigned his Missouri House seat Aug. 14, had his right to practice law in state courts suspended by the Missouri Supreme Court in August and had his federal licenses suspended by the U.S. District Court in October.

"Mr. Cooper has lost the two things most dear to him -- his political career and his legal career."

Crowe, however, portrayed Cooper as a sharp operator who disregarded the law as he cut corners for clients.

"This was a sophisticated effort by a sophisticated attorney to flaunt the immigration laws of this country," Crowe said.

Cooper, 34, specialized in immigration law, with offices in Cape Girardeau and St. Louis. In the court papers filed at the time of his guilty plea, and records filed in other cases, federal investigators detailed schemes in which Cooper set up shell companies to hide the true employers of foreign truck drivers.

Those drivers, many from Australia or New Zealand, were brought to the U.S. after Cooper obtained state certification of the need for foreign workers to take care of a seasonal surge in business. Those workers actually took permanent employment with companies that had little seasonal variation in need.

Cooper also admitted purchasing visa approvals for seasonal workers in the hospitality industry and using the documents to provide work to the truck drivers.

In a statement issued after the sentencing, first assistant Federal prosecutor Michael Reap said: "Cooper's actions were particularly offensive in that he also deceived the state of Missouri as part of his scheme while he was serving as a state representative."

As part of the deal for his August plea, Cooper agreed to pay $50,000 as a forfeiture of legal fees from the trucking companies he aided with the schemes. Cooper paid the $50,000 just before sentencing.

During the hearing, Hamilton noted that she had received "a number" of letters on Cooper's behalf and had reviewed them. She made no further comment on the letters except to say she would make them a part of the record in the case.

To assist in the collection of the fine, Hamilton ordered Cooper to provide any financial information requested by the federal probation office. Cooper has already made a full disclosure of his finances as part of his plea agreement.

Cooper asked to be assigned to the federal prison in Marion, Ill. Hamilton said she would include the request in the report to the Bureau of Prisons but noted it was up to the bureau to make a final decision. The prison, about nine miles south of Marion, is a medium-security institution with an adjacent satellite minimum security prison camp for male inmates.

Investigators opened the case in June 2004 -- two months before Cooper won the Republican primary for his first term as a state lawmaker -- based on tips received via fax and telephone. Investigators first approached Cooper at his law office 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 cooperated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement following their visit. But a criminal case against Omega "Meg" Paulite, 36, a Philippine-born U.S. citizen, was dismissed in October. Paulite had been charged with a single felony count of immigration fraud for selling more than 100 approval notices for the entry of foreign workers to Cooper for $250 each.

Schwartz, Cooper's attorney, said Cooper was caught up in a scheme that had benefited others "long before Nathan came on the scene."

He also noted that none of the drivers Cooper assisted in entering the country are known to have committed any crimes while in the United States. "In my view, it is not what you visualize when you hear about immigration fraud."

Crowe, however, noted that instead of reporting to authorities that he was being asked to do something illegal, Cooper willingly joined in. "We didn't get any volunteering from Nathan Cooper that somebody was violating the law," he said.

Asked whether additional cases will be filed based on Cooper's conviction, Crowe added: "I am not at liberty to say."

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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