Contempt citation sought against lobbyist

Ira C. Cooke is accused of misrepresenting his finances in divorce case

February 10, 2003|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

A top Annapolis lobbyist could soon be facing a contempt citation in the latest chapter of a divorce case in which a judge and court-appointed master have concluded he has been misreporting his finances.

Ira C. Cooke, whose clients include gambling interests and the state's bail bond industry, has been ordered by a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge to nearly double the amount he has been paying in alimony and child support.

Although the judge ordered Cooke in December to increase the monthly payments from $4,000 to $7,130, his wife's attorneys have said that Cooke has yet to comply and they are asking the judge to find the lobbyist in contempt.

Ira Cooke's lawyers have asked Judge Vicki Ballou-Watts to reverse her decision and reduce the award. They've also asked for a delay in a hearing scheduled for Feb. 18.

Cooke declined to comment, as did the attorney for his wife.

The case, which was filed last year by Randi Thomas Cooke, has been highlighted by claims from Ira Cooke that his finances were so desperate that he had no place to live and he had to borrow money from an unnamed friend to make the down payment on a house.

During a court hearing last summer, Cooke testified that he couldn't disclose the lender's name because "I don't want to compromise a good friend."

Denying that he made the down payment from his own savings, Cooke said, "Your honor, I swear on my children that [the money] was wired in by a friend."

Lawyers on the other side of the case have challenged Cooke's assertions, stating that within one 24-hour period he filed three different versions of his official financial statement. They also say that he has failed to provide any documentation of claimed debts.

The attorneys for Cooke's wife also have alleged that many of the lobbyist's personal expenses have been paid from his law practice.

In a decision issued late last year, Ballou-Watts upheld the decision of a court-appointed master, who concluded that Cooke's testimony on his expenses was not credible.

"It is apparent," Ballou-Watts wrote, that the master "did not find portions of the defendant's testimony and financial documentation to be credible." In fact, the judge wrote, "The court finds that the master's findings of fact are supported by credible evidence and, therefore, are not clearly erroneous."

Disputes in the case have ranged from who should pay for the private school tuition for the couple's two children to why the lobbyist stopped paying annual family dues of $4,460.92 at a local country club.

Among the expenses claimed by Cooke was about $25,000 a year to rent hotel space in Annapolis during the annual legislative session.

The divorce is not the first legal tangle in which Cooke has faced such allegations. In a lawsuit filed in federal court three years ago, Cooke was accused of fraud, forgery and malpractice by a gambling firm that had hired him to lobby.

The lawsuit filed by the Isle of Capri Casinos was settled out of court after the judge presiding over the case had rejected a motion by Cooke and his law firm to have the case dismissed.

Cooke recently filed a lawsuit against his former law firm, Levin and Gavin, saying that the firm has failed to pay him $30,000 owed from fees earned in a malpractice case.

In a hearing June 25 in his divorce case, the veteran lobbyist gave a dire account of his finances and his personal life.

"I have no money. I've taken up smoking again. I'm sad. I've upped my psychological visits to two and sometimes three times a week because of this. Yeah, my lifestyle has been affected significantly," the lobbyist testified.

He said that in addition to the loan from a friend to purchase a Mount Washington townhouse, he was paying $2,000 a month over six months to a contractor for the renovation of his kitchen.

The court-appointed master, Richard J. Gilbert, concluded that Cooke's actual annual income was $209,078 and that he also received $28,968 in benefits from his law practice for a total of $238,046.

Cooke had reported that his monthly income was $13,166, or $157,992 a year, while his monthly expenses were $17,681, or $212,172 per year.

Annual reports filed by Cooke with the state Ethics Commission indicate his income may be even higher. The reports filed for the 2002 legislative session list his income from 11 clients at $258,312.

In arguing for additional time for custody of his two children, the lobbyist said that he was more than qualified to assist them in their homework because he holds a doctoral degree in 19th-century English romantic poetry.

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