Lobbyist convicted of bilking nonprofit

Ira Cooke, 58, found guilty in Calif. of grand theft, bribery and conspiracy

December 09, 2004|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Ira C. Cooke, an attorney and prominent Maryland lobbyist, was convicted in California yesterday of bilking $57,000 from a now-defunct nonprofit mental health care provider.

A jury convicted Cooke, 58, on one count each of grand theft, commercial bribery and conspiracy for his role in the looting of the failed Desert Counseling Clinic, said Gregory A. Pulskamp, a deputy district attorney in Kern County, Calif., who prosecuted the case.

Cooke could be disbarred and lose his lobbying license in Maryland. His lobbying clients include gambling interests and the bail bonds industry.

Also convicted was Bobbie Cumberworth, the wife of the Bakersfield, Calif., clinic's chief executive officer, Terry Cumberworth. The case against Terry Cumberworth, who was indicted on 89 counts of grand theft and two counts of perjury, will go to trial next month, Pulskamp said.

"The Cooke case was a subset of a much larger case against Terry Cumberworth," Pulskamp said, adding that Cumberworth used a half-dozen schemes to pay himself and his wife with funds received from Kern County to cover mental health services for residents.

Cooke and Bobbie Cumberworth could receive a maximum penalty of four years in prison at sentencing Jan. 19, Pulskamp said.

Defense attorney Gregg Bernstein of Baltimore, who was with Cooke when the verdict was read, said his client is free on bail and will return to his Maryland home until sentencing.

Cooke worked for the Cumberworths for about two years, from 2000 to 2002, providing lobbying and business development services, according to Bernstein. He said Cooke was paid $5,000 a month, but sent half of that to Bobbie Cumberworth for work she was supposed to be doing in California.

Prosecutors said she never performed the work.

Bernstein said that Cooke had no way of knowing what was happening in Bakersfield.

"Our defense was that Mr. Cooke trusted and relied on Mr. Cumberworth's representations in regards to what his wife would be doing," Bernstein said.

The prosecution argued that the Cumberworths abused the system, charging the clinic for a $48,000 Chevrolet Suburban, opera tickets, a Maryland townhouse and exotic trips. The nonprofit organization collapsed in 2002 after audits showed that about $2 million paid to the clinic could not be accounted for.

D. Bruce Poole, a former majority leader in the Maryland House of Delegates and former member of the state ethics commission, said that "at first glance," the criminal conviction puts Cooke's lobbying license in jeopardy. "The commission can certainly have an investigation as to whether or not a license would be appropriate."

He said that the ethics commission, if it investigated, would have to decide whether Cooke's actions with regards to the California clinic and subsequent convictions made him a dishonest person.

James Browning, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said last night that he hopes the commission investigates Cooke.

"If he abused the public's trust here, it would disqualify him," Browning said. "The big question here is: Can this person be trusted?"

The Bakersfield Californian contributed to this article.

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