Cooke accused of funneling fees back to owner of Calif. clinic

Md. lobbyist arraigned on theft, bribery charges

October 23, 2003|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A Maryland lobbyist who faces criminal charges in California in the collapse of a government-funded mental health clinic is accused of illegally funneling consulting fees he received back to the clinic's owner.

Details of an indictment against lobbyist Ira C. Cooke were revealed as he was arraigned Tuesday in Kern County Superior Court.

Cooke pleaded innocent to one count each of grand theft, commercial bribery and conspiracy related to a financial scandal involving the Desert Counseling Clinic in Bakersfield, Calif. He posted $25,000 bond and was released pending trial, which was scheduled for Dec. 18.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Sun incorrectly stated that Terry Cumberworth was the owner of Desert Counseling Clinic in Bakersfield, Calif. In fact, he had been the clinic's chief executive officer prior to the clinic's collapse. The Sun regrets the error.

The clinic was forced to close nearly a year ago. Audits showed that the owner failed to properly account for more than $2 million the clinic received, mostly from contracts with public agencies to provide drug, alcohol and mental health counseling services.

Timothy Lemucchi, a Bakersfield lawyer who represents Cooke, said that the lobbyist had a "small, peripheral involvement" as a consultant and lobbyist to the company, and that Cooke did nothing wrong.

He said Cooke was hired to help the clinic's owners get contracts in the mid-Atlantic region and had nothing to do with the clinic's operations.

Prosecutors say owner Terry Cumberworth paid money from the clinic's bank accounts to Cooke. The Maryland lobbyist is accused of sending checks back, in smaller amounts, to Cumberworth's wife, Bobbie, who then deposited them into a joint account she held with her husband, prosecutors say.

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

Lemucchi said he does not dispute the facts stated in the indictment, but insisted that nothing his client did violated the law.

"Mr. Cooke never got any money out of this that he wasn't entitled to," Lemucchi said. "Ira Cooke is a victim, a fall guy. He's being used."

Lemucchi said Cooke was directed to employ Bobbie Cumberworth and to pay her out of the consulting fees that he received from the clinic.

The attorney said Cooke gave Bobbie Cumberworth a 1099 tax form to report the payments she received.

"Nobody's trying to hide anything," Lemucchi said. "If you're trying to steal something, or hide it, you don't give someone a 1099."

Although Cooke paid the money to Bobbie Cumberworth as instructed, the woman didn't actually work for Cooke, Lemucchi said.

"He didn't supervise her," he said. "What her role was will just have to come out at trial."

Lemucchi said it is his understanding that it is not uncommon for a lobbyist to be directed by a client to pay part of his or her fee to another lobbyist or entity.

Kern County Superior Court Judge John L. Fielder set the trial date but indicated that it could be delayed.

However, he denied a motion by Cooke's attorney to postpone the trial until after the Maryland General Assembly's session ends in April.

With clients that include gambling interests and the bail bond industry, Cooke is among the state's top-earning lobbyists and is one of its most flamboyant political operatives. Reports filed for last year's legislative session list Cooke's income from 11 clients as $258,312.

Terry Cumberworth was indicted on 89 felony counts of grand theft and two felony counts of perjury.

A separate indictment was returned against Bobbie Cumberworth and Cooke on one count each of grand theft, commercial bribery and conspiracy.

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