Election Registry Won't Change Fine Against Former Sen. Cooper

By ERIK SCHELZIG | Associated Press Writer

NASHVILLE (AP) - The Registry of Election Finance on Wednesday declined to reconsider a record $120,000 fine against former Sen. Jerry Cooper.

Neither Cooper nor his attorney attended the meeting, but Cooper submitted a written statement asking the registry to recognize his limited ability to pay the fine for improperly sending campaign funds to his personal account.

Cooper, a Morrison Democrat who did not challenge the basis for the fine, said in the statement said he "would humbly apologize for any mistakes I made during my terms as Senator."

The board's refusal to reconsider the fine came after the state attorney general issued a legal opinion that each check Cooper wrote could be counted as a separate violation.

Cooper wrote 23 checks worth about $94,000 to his personal account.

Dick Williams of Common Cause, a group that advocates for stronger ethics and open government laws, applauded the decision to uphold the fine.

"On a personal basis, I hate to see him fined this much," Williams said. "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."

Registry Chairman Will Long said he was comfortable with the amount of the fine, especially because Cooper has not given any indication he plans to pay back any of the money.

"We're not in the business of sending signals ... but if one happens to be sent by what we do, then so be it," he said.

Cooper was first elected to the Senate in 1985 and resigned in December. The resignation capped a tumultuous year for Cooper, who was once among the state's most powerful lawmakers.

Cooper last year was acquitted of land fraud charges in a federal trial and pleaded no contest to drunken-driving charges after he was seriously injured in a single-car accident on Interstate 24.

The campaign money transfer came to light during testimony by an Internal Revenue Service investigator in Cooper's federal trial on charges of bank fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy.

State law does not allow politicians to use campaign money for their personal expenses.

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