Culture of Sleaze 

Cooper shows lawmakers how to get caught stealing and still make a profit

In the culture of sleaze at the Capitol, it seems that no behavior is too audacious for some Democrats.
In the culture of sleaze at the Capitol, it seems that no behavior is too audacious for some Democrats. They take bribes, drive blind-drunk, smash up their cars, fall off bar stools, and generally act out—or at least too many of them do, as our Boner awards attest elsewhere in this week’s Scene.

And now, as if they needed instruction in how to get away with chicanery, legislators have been given an invaluable lesson from Jerry Cooper, the latest Democratic state senator to resign in disgrace from that august body. Cooper got caught stealing $94,000 from his reelection campaign account but still might wind up making a profit on the deal.

In a rare show of backbone, the state’s so-called ethics watchdog—the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance—originally levied a record $120,000 fine against Cooper. To the rescue last week came registry board member George Harding, a House Democratic Caucus appointee who has been—how should we put it?—especially willing to forgive Democrats’ transgressions in the past.

Harding succeeded in persuading the rest of the board to set aside the civil penalty and meanwhile ask the state attorney general whether it surpasses the limit under the law. The registry thought it could fine Cooper up to $10,000 for each of the 23 checks he wrote to transfer the money to his personal use from his campaign account. But Harding argued each transfer of money could not be treated as a separate violation. He contended the maximum fine is $10,000 or 15 percent of the total amount in question—or, in Cooper’s case, about $14,000. That would mean that Cooper would make an $80,000 profit on his misdeed—not a bad bargain. Such a good deal might entice other lawmakers to pilfer their campaign treasuries.

In fact, even if the attorney general agrees that the higher fine is allowable (and his office has already given an informal verbal opinion that it is), what’s to stop a legislator from emptying his campaign account all at once? In that case, it would be indisputable that there’s only one violation and the fine could go no higher than $10,000 or 15 percent of the amount stolen.

Cooper, presumably, still could face criminal charges—although it’s not publicly known whether there’s an investigation. His theft only came to light during his successful defense this year against federal bank fraud charges when an IRS agent testified Cooper had withdrawn the money from his campaign account between December 1999 and November 2001. As Drew Rawlins, the registry’s executive director, explains, “Right now, there’s not much to stop someone from stealing from their campaign account from a civil penalty angle. There’s not much of a deterrent.”

State Republican Party flack Bill Hobbs says, “It’s my new retirement plan. I’m going to run for office, raise a million dollars and just take it all.” Hobbs is joking, of course, but don’t laugh: That thought is probably crossing the minds of certain crafty legislators even as you read this.

During an interview with the Scene, Harding defends himself against criticism that, basically, he’s a party hack out to let Democrats get away with violating the laws governing campaign finance.

“My being a Democrat has nothing to do with my feelings,” says Harding, a former Wilson County commissioner and road superintendent. “I’m a big Democrat. I’m a yellow-dog Democrat, but this has nothing to do with that. Politics has nothing to do with it.

“I’m not trying to take up for Sen. Cooper. I think he did an absolutely bad thing. He violated the law, and he should be punished. But he has to be punished according to what the law says. I didn’t write the law. The legislators have taken care of themselves. I don’t blame ‘em. If I was in the legislature, I’d probably do the same thing.”

For his part, Cooper has a really fuzzy memory of what he did with that money. “I’m really not sure,” he told reporters last week. “I don’t have any receipts, what I spent that money for.... Can you remember what you did a year ago? I mean, I just can’t remember.” But he’s not really worried about it. His contributors don’t seem to care that he stole the money they gave his campaign, he says. “It’s been in the news, what, maybe a month or two months or something—and I’ve not had one person call me.” Spoken like a true sociopath.

Another Democratic scoundrel, state Rep. Rob Briley of Nashville, pleaded guilty this week to drunken driving and will spend five weekends in jail. He beat the rap on other charges, including leading police on a 100-mph chase.

Asked to explain the rash of misconduct in the legislature, even Gov. Phil Bredesen, the titular head of the Democratic Party, is having trouble defending Democrats and seems to suggest that it’s time to throw the rascals out.

“The Democrats have been in power longer,” he told reporters last week. “And I think anytime you have anybody in power longer, these kinds of things develop with a Pfew people.”

Tennessee Republicans have got to be wondering what it takes to dislodge Democrats, who run the House by a 53-46 margin and split the Senate 16-16 with Republicans. It’s not that the GOP isn’t trying. The state party is continually blasting the state’s media with releases on Democratic shenanigans. After the registry set aside Cooper’s fine, a GOP press release carried this headline: “DEMOCRATS SEEK TO LET SEN. COOPER KEEP MOST OF THE MONEY HE STOLE.”

Cooper, who nearly killed himself in a drunken-driving wreck in February, became the fourth Democrat to resign the Senate since 2005.

The other senators who quit were snagged in the Tennessee Waltz bribery scandal. Republicans haven’t won any of their seats. But as Hobbs notes, all those districts were heavily Democratic. He sees next year’s election in Cooper’s southeast Tennessee district, which is not so overwhelmingly Democratic, as a better test of whether the culture of sleaze will hurt Democrats at the polls.

“Can I forecast that we definitely will win Cooper’s old seat?” Hobbs asks. “No, but we’ve seen this on the national level and on the state level—when there’s a steady drip, drip, drip of news and scandal that seems to focus more on one party than the other, that party eventually pays the price at the polls.”

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