A California appeals court has overturned the 2004 conviction of Ira C. Cooke, a once-prominent Maryland lobbyist and lawyer who was charged with bilking a West Coast mental health center of $57,000.
During the California trial, prosecutors used improper evidence - details of a Maryland lawsuit against Cooke that was settled out of court - a panel of judges in the California Court of Appeal Fifth Appellate District said in a decision released this week.
"He's obviously elated by the decision of the California Court of Appeals, which found numerous errors in evidentiary rulings which prejudiced his ability to present his defense," said Gregg Bernstein, a Maryland defense attorney who represented Cooke during the prosecution.
On appeal, Cooke was represented by a court-appointed attorney after he was found to be indigent.
Bernstein said California prosecutors had not decided whether to bring the case against him again. "It's hard to say at this point whether they elect to retry him or not," Bernstein said, noting that Cooke has served a substantial part of his sentence.
Cooke has completed two years of a five-year sentence of probation without incident and has, with a co-defendant, repaid the $57,000 he was accused of taking from the health care provider, Bernstein said.
Gregory A. Pulskamp, a deputy district attorney in Kern County, Calif., who prosecuted the case, said his office is "evaluating all of our options" regarding a retrial. No decision has been made, he said.
In 2004, 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.
Under the alleged scheme, Cooke was paid $5,000 a month to lobby for the clinic. He gave half of the money to Bobbie Cumberworth, the wife of the Bakersfield, Calif., clinic's chief executive officer, Terry Cumberworth. Terry Cumberworth, who was indicted separately, pleaded guilty and is serving a seven-year sentence, Pulskamp said.
The nonprofit organization collapsed in 2002 after audits showed that about $2 million paid to the clinic could not be accounted for.
Prosecutors argued that the Cumberworths abused the system, charging the clinic for a $48,000 Chevrolet Suburban, opera tickets, a Maryland townhouse and exotic trips.
Bobbie Cumberworth's conviction was also overturned this week by the California appeals court.
During Cooke's 2004 trial, a prosecutor tried to portray the lobbyist as untrustworthy, in part by referring to a Maryland lawsuit filed by one of Cooke's clients, the Isle of Capri Casinos, Inc., which was hoping to benefit from slot machine gambling if it was approved in Maryland
Isle of Capri officials accused Cooke of forging a company official's initials on a document, and sued him and his law firm. The case was settled, and Cooke did not admit wrongdoing.
The prosecutor argued that the case showed that Cooke was dishonest and his testimony could not be trusted, and the trial judge agreed, telling the jury "the law of the state of California says it's relevant and may be and even should be considered by you folks."
But the appellate court said that because Cooke did not admit to guilt in the settlement, the Maryland case should not have been part of the trial.
After his conviction, Cooke surrendered his law license in Maryland, Bernstein said. He is no longer lobbying and is executive director of the Sedan Transportation Association of Maryland.