Lobbyist sentenced to 5 years' probation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A veteran Annapolis lawyer and lobbyist was sentenced to five years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service yesterday in a California federal court for his role in defrauding a nonprofit mental health care clinic.

Ira C. Cooke, 58, whose clients have included gambling interests and bail bond companies, was convicted last month on charges of theft, commercial bribery and conspiracy. As a result, his registration as a lobbyist could be revoked by the State Ethics Commission, and he could be disbarred.

A federal judge in Bakersfield, Calif., also ordered Cooke and co-defendant Bobbie Cumberworth to pay $57,000 between them by next January or risk up to a year in jail, said Gregg Bernstein, a Baltimore attorney who represented Cooke in the California case.

Cooke received several offers to do consulting work for private businesses, Bernstein said, and that income could be used to pay off the debt. He will not work as a lobbyist, Bernstein said.

The $57,000 represents the kickbacks Cooke paid Cumberworth from 2000 to 2002. During that time, Cooke was employed as a lobbyist and business development consultant by Cumberworth and her husband, Terry, chief executive officer of Desert Counseling Clinic in Bakersfield.

Cooke and Bobbie Cumberworth were found guilty in a scheme to defraud the now-defunct mental health care provider.

Terry Cumberworth, principal defendant in the case, pleaded no contest to one count of theft and one count of perjury last week in a deal under which he could be sentenced to up to seven years in prison. He had faced 89 counts of grand theft and two of perjury.

In October, Bakersfield attorney Timothy Lemucchi, who also represents Cooke, described the lobbyist as a "fall guy" and his role in the company's operations as "peripheral."

In recent years, Cooke has not ranked among the top 10 money-earners in the Annapolis lobbying corps, but he has been a fixture in the second tier. A report filed last year after the legislative session listed $258,312 in earnings from 11 clients. For the year that ended Oct. 31, 2003, he ranked 22nd with $274,933, in earnings, according to the ethics panel's annual report.

Suzanne Fox, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said her agency could revoke the registration - in effect, a license to practice - of a lobbyist convicted of a crime of moral turpitude involving lobbying activities.

Fox said the commission would decide whether an offense was such a crime. However, she said, case law suggests that theft falls within the definition of moral turpitude.

Because the handling of ethics cases is confidential until a finding is made, Fox said, she could not say whether the commission had discussed Cooke's case. She said that when the panel becomes aware of a criminal conviction of a lobbyist, it normally would address the matter.

In 2000, Cooke settled a civil suit brought by a former casino client accusing him of fraud, forgery and malpractice. In 1993, he was arrested and received probation before judgment on a marijuana-possession charge. The next year, he pleaded guilty to a probation violation and no contest to a second marijuana charge and was given a weekend in jail.

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