Cooper officially resigns from MO House after guilty plea
Cape Girardeau, Mo. – Cape Girardeau Republican Nathan Cooper is no longer a state lawmaker.
He officially resigned his seat Tuesday after pleading guilty last week to felony charges in a scheme to help hundreds of foreign truck drivers enter the U.S. illegally. Cooper is an immigration lawyer.
Gov. Blunt will now decide when to hold a special election to fill Cooper's seat.
His resignation comes as word comes that days before he pleaded guilty, Cooper ordered a transfer of campaign funds that now appears to prevent the money from being returned to donors.
Cooper ordered campaign treasurer Victor Gunn to formally dissolve his campaign committee. He also instructed Gunn to pay all outstanding bills and to transfer the remaining money $65,792.89 to another campaign committee called the Friends of the 158th over which Gunn is also treasurer.
Gunn, a retired deputy police chief, told the Post-Dispatch he would have refused to transfer the money if he'd known of Cooper's legal troubles.
The transfer appears to prevent him from returning the money to the roughly 130 original donors who gave it to Cooper.
Under state law, the transferred money is seen as a donation from Cooper. The law dictates that the Friends committee give the money only to other campaign committees, the state treasury, or to charity.
Gunn said Monday that he assumed that Cooper's aim was to make sure that the money went to other Republican candidates or political groups.
Gunn said the money should go back to the donors.
The transfer was first reported by the Southeast Missourian on Friday.
The Missouri Ethics Commission interprets state campaign finance law. Campaign finance director Joe Carroll said the agency would issue an opinion only after Gunn filed a formal request.
Gunn also is upset because most of the transferred money was collected a little over a month ago, at a fundraiser that Cooper held for his political campaign. At the time, Cooper already was dealing in private with federal investigators from the U.S. attorney's office.
"I never would have gotten involved in that fundraiser if I had known," Gunn said. "And nobody else would have gotten involved in that fundraiser, either."
Cooper's lawyer, Joel Schwartz, said he was unaware of the transferred campaign money.
Schwartz said Cooper had been ordered by federal investigators not to raise any suspicions during the investigation. But Schwartz added that no specific events or fundraisers had been discussed.
Gunn said a golf tournament had been a fundraiser for the past three years. For the first two years, the event raised money for the 158th Legislative District's campaign committee. This year was the first time that the tournament raised money for Cooper's campaign committee.
Gunn said he first learned of Cooper's legal problems the day before he pleaded guilty last week; Cooper personally told him.
Cooper pleaded guilty to felony charges in connection with a scheme to help hundreds of foreign truck drivers enter the United States illegally.
Cooper pleaded guilty to two felonies: visa fraud and making a false statement to the Department of Labor. He faces 30 to 37 months in federal prison under sentencing guidelines.
In addition to resigning, Cooper has said he will surrender his law license.
If the transferred money can't be returned to the donors, Gunn says he'll donate it to charity.
At the Ethics Commission, Carroll observed that he was intrigued that Cooper "dumped his campaign money before he even resigned."