Tennessee Personal Use

Tennessee’s ban on personal use resulted in one of the larger state fines I have seen for campaign finance violations:  $120,000.  The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports below.  During the proceedings, the Attorney General weighed-in on the standard for the amount of the fine.

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NASHVILLE — Former state Sen. Jerry Cooper, D-Morrison, must pay a record-setting $120,000 fine after Tennessee Registry of Election Finance members on Wednesday rejected his appeal of penalties for converting campaign funds to personal use.

Mr. Cooper has 60 days to pay the fine before it is turned over to Tennessee’s Attorney General’s Office for collection, registry Executive Director Drew Rawlins said. But Mr. Rawlins said the state might work out a schedule for payments.

Earlier in the day, the registry, the state’s campaign finance watchdog, voted 5-0 and upheld Mr. Cooper’s punishment for depositing 23 checks and converting $94,350 in campaign funds to personal use. A federal Treasury Department agent testified in federal court in 2007 that then-Sen. Cooper transferred nearly $100,000 from his “Jerry Cooper for Senate” re-election fund into his personal account between December 1999 and November 2001.

Mr. Cooper, who resigned his seat last December, did not attend Wednesday’s meeting but asked registry members in a letter to consider “my limited ability to pay.”

“I have the utmost respect for the Registry and its goals, and would humbly apologize for any mistakes I made during my terms as senator,” the letter stated.

Efforts to reach Mr. Cooper’s attorney, Mike Galligan, were unsuccessful.

Registry Chairman Will Long later said he and other members were “comfortable with the vote they had taken, comfortable with the legality of it.”

“We’re not in the business of sending signals … but if one happens to be sent by what we do, so be it,” Mr. Long said.

During the hearing, Dick Williams of Tennessee Common Cause, an ethics advocacy group, told registry members that he considered Mr. Cooper a friend and noted Mr. Cooper had worked to help create the registry in 1989.

“On a personal basis I hate to see him fined this much,” Mr. Williams said of Mr. Cooper, a one-time Senate Commerce Committee chairman. “But on the other hand, as a matter of public policy we ought not to allow a public official to use campaign funds for personal use without being fined at least that amount.”

The registry originally fined Mr. Cooper in November 2007. But Mr. Cooper and Mr. Galligan challenged that in a December meeting, questioning the agency’s decision to count each check as a separate violation subject to up to $10,000 in fines.

The agency sought a legal opinion from Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper, who issued an opinion last week stating that registry members could fine Mr. Cooper up to $10,000 per check. The attorney general and former senator are not related.

Wade Hinton, a registry member from Chattanooga, said the decision to fine Mr. Cooper was not made lightly.

“I think the … registry tried to balance the consideration of the circumstances along with trying to enforce what I think the public has entrusted us to do,” Mr. Hinton said.

Mr. Cooper, 59, resigned his Senate seat in December after a year in which he was tried and acquitted by a Chattanooga jury on federal bank fraud and conspiracy charges involving the sale of his lumber mill.

He received severe injuries in a single-car accident on Interstate 24 last winter and later pleaded no-contest to DUI charges lodged in connection with the crash.

In the fall, citing an Internal Revenue Service agent’s testimony about Mr. Cooper’s personal use of campaign funds in the bank fraud trial, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a conservative watchdog group, filed a complaint against then Sen. Cooper with the registry.


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