The Southern Standard, by Duane Sherrill —
The letter of the law may save former state Sen. Jerry Cooper over $100,000 in fines as the state attorney general has been asked to determine if election finance officials exceeded their authority in assessing a record fine against the veteran lawmaker.
Meanwhile, state Republicans are saying partisan politics have led to backpedaling by the Registry of Election Finance, noting they feel Democrats on the board which fined Cooper are trying to use a legal loophole to free him from having to pay most of his fine.
Cooper, who retired from his post of 23 years last week, appeared Wednesday before the Registry of Election Finance, the same registry which fined him $120,000 for putting campaign donations into his private bank accounts, an act which is prohibited by election finance law. The mixing of accounts was revealed while Cooper was on trial for bank, mail and wire fraud charges over the summer ‘ charges for which he was acquitted.
Because of the record fine and Cooper’s financial difficulties, the former lawmaker appeared before the Election Finance board Wednesday with his attorney, Michael Galligan, to ask for a reduction in the fine. It was during the meeting that Galligan pointed to specific language in the law governing his client’s violation which limits the fine for the offense to $10,000 or 15 percent of the disputed amount. In this case, the amount in dispute is $95,000, meaning Cooper believes he should only be eligible for a $15,000 fine.
“There is some confusion about how much the fine can be,” Galligan said. “This is why the members of the board unanimously decided to ask for an attorney general’s opinion.”
Galligan said the way he reads the law, it is clear the amount of the fine is capped by law. Galligan said if the state attorney general finds otherwise, Cooper will likely appeal the decision.
In light of the board’s decision to seek an attorney general’s opinion before proceeding on Cooper’s appeal, the Tennessee Republican Party had harsh words for the board’s actions, suggesting partisan politics is at play.
“Two Democratic appointees on the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance may have found a way to let ex-state Sen. Jerry Cooper keep $80,000 of the $95,000 he stole from his campaign contributors,” said Bill Hobbs, communications director for the Tennessee Republican Party. “Instead of trying to find ways to help a thieving Democrat keep his ill-gotten money, Democrats on the Registry of Election Finance should be calling for reform to close the ‘Cooper Loophole.’”
Galligan rejected the Republican assertions, noting the board voted unanimously to ask for an attorney general’s opinion.
“While I don’t know the political make-up of the six-person board that was there, I’m sure there were Republicans and Democrats and it was a unanimous decision to get an attorney general’s opinion,” Galligan said. “This is the same board which issued the record fine so this is clearly not partisan politics.”
There is no time frame for the attorney general’s decision. Even if the attorney general finds against Cooper, the board still has at its discretion the ability to reduce the assessment against the former state senator.