Lobbyist Cooke indicted in collapse of Calif. clinic

He is accused of bribery, grand theft, conspiracy

October 12, 2003|By Greg Garland and Stephanie Hanes | Greg Garland and Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

A prominent Maryland lobbyist whose clients include gambling interests and the bail bond industry has been indicted in California on charges of conspiracy, grand theft and commercial bribery in the collapse of a government-funded, nonprofit mental health clinic.

A Kern County grand jury in Bakersfield, Calif., indicted lobbyist Ira C. Cooke and a California couple Thursday on felony charges related to the bankruptcy of the Desert Counseling Clinic.

County auditors found that about $2 million paid to the clinic under county mental health and substance abuse contracts was not properly accounted for, and the clinic was forced to close its doors a year ago, according to The Bakersfield Californian.

The clinic's owner and his wife were arrested Friday in Greenville, N.C., on no-bail warrants. A $250,000 warrant was issued for Cooke's arrest, according to a written statement from Kern County District Attorney Edward R. Jagels.

Cooke's Baltimore lawyer, Gregg Bernstein, said yesterday that he is arranging for Cooke to appear in Kern County in response to the charges, but insisted that his client did nothing wrong and will vigorously fight the charges.

Bernstein said the clinic's owner, Terry Cumberworth, had hired Cooke as a lobbyist "to assist them in acquiring business in Maryland and on the East Coast providing similar mental health services."

Bernstein said Cooke was paid about $50,000 as Cumberworth's lobbyist from 1999 until early last year. Cooke had no knowledge of the source of money Cumberworth used to pay his lobbying fees, or that there might be any problem, Bernstein said.

The lawyer said that as far as he knows Cumberworth never obtained any mental health service contracts in Maryland.

Terry Cumberworth was charged in one indictment with 89 felony counts of grand theft and two felony counts of perjury, according to the district attorney. His wife, Bobbie Cumberworth, and Cooke were indicted on one count each of conspiracy, grand theft and commercial bribery.

The grand jury indictments followed an intensive, 10-month investigation, according to the district attorney.

Contacted late yesterday, Jagels said that California law prohibits him from discussing the specifics of the charges.

"I can't talk about specifics until the indictment is unsealed," he said. An indictment is unsealed after a defendant is arraigned, he said. No court dates have been set, Jagels said.

Jagels said that "the charges relating to Mr. Cooke relate to the activities here in Kern County. ... I can say that it is my understanding that Mr. Cumberworth had the same sort of business in Maryland, or at least was contemplating the same sort of business in Maryland. And the rationale for payments to Mr. Cooke was to represent him" in that.

Jagels said his office believed the Cumberworths had moved to Maryland but also found they had been staying in North Carolina.

Maryland state records indicate that the couple lived for a time in Sparks, where they formed a for-profit company, Noble House Group Inc., in March.

Bernstein said his client has cooperated with investigators.

"We are absolutely baffled that the Kern County prosecutor chose to charge Mr. Cooke," Bernstein said. "Mr. Cooke was in no way involved in the operation of the clinic. He lives 3,000 miles away."

Cooke is among the state's top-earning lobbyists and is one of its most flamboyant political operatives. Reports filed for the 2002 legislative session list Cooke's income from 11 clients as $258,312.

His financial and other dealings have been called into question in the past.

In December, a Baltimore County judge and court-appointed special master concluded Cooke misreported his finances in a divorce case.

And three years ago, he was accused in a lawsuit of fraud, forgery and malpractice by a gambling firm that had hired him to lobby. The lawsuit by the Isle of Capri Casinos was settled out of court.

In the early 1990s, Cooke was fined and given probation for possession of marijuana, a misdemeanor offense.

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