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Running on Empty

Ex-Lobbyist’s Fall Leads to Bankruptcy

Bakersfield Californian by Alex Horvath
HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN: Ira Cooke, Once a prominent Annapolis lobbyist, was convicted of theft and conspiracy in 2003, has lost his lobbying and law licenses, and now faces Bankruptcy.

By Van Smith | Posted 1/18/2006

Editor's note: This story was corrected Jan. 26, 2006. We incorrectly reported a settlement amount.

“I’m really, really vindictive now,” Bernadette Sebour of Edgewood proclaimed over the phone Jan. 6, hours before heading to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in downtown Baltimore. Sebour was steamed because her ex-boss, former lawyer/lobbyist Ira C. Cooke, “never had the decency to call me” after she held his business together, without pay, for months in the fall of 2004. That’s when Cooke was in Bakersfield, Calif., facing theft-and-conspiracy charges in a lengthy trial that ultimately led to his conviction (“Cooke-d,” Feb. 5, 2005; “Not in Kansas Anymore . . . ,” Nov. 26, 2003; “California Scheming,” Oct. 29, 2003).

“I wrote the checks [to myself], but never cashed them,” Sebour explains, “because he was always, in the past, able to make good [on his debts]. That simply did not happen.”

Sebour is not alone. With his debts mounting while his business fell apart, Cooke last summer sought Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. Sebour says she is owed three months in back pay—$20,000, according to Cooke’s court filings—but others are owed much more. Cooke’s criminal defense attorney in the California case, Gregg Bernstein, for instance, is owed $200,000, according to court documents.

“I have no comment about that,” Bernstein tells City Paper. He confirms, however, that Cooke is due back in Bakersfield, on Jan. 19, for a hearing on the status of his court-ordered 1,000 hours of community service and restitution of $57,000. The amount equals the kickbacks uncovered by the case, in which Cooke was found to have participated in defrauding a mental-health clinic. “He is paying his restitution,” Bernstein says.

Another creditor—the Kern County probation department in California—confirms Bernstein’s account. “He has been making some payments on his restitution,” says R. Creig York, the department’s administrative services officer, in a recent phone interview.

Other major creditors include American Express ($38,212), BB&T ($56,194), the IRS ($35,800), MBNA America ($27,440), and the landlord for Cooke’s former offices ($63,761). In all, when Cooke filed for bankruptcy last July, he owed $673,326 and had assets valued at $374,950, including a $220,000 pension account. He disclosed in the filing that he’d recently started a new company—ICCO Consulting Inc.—which pays him $6,000 per month, but his monthly expenses total nearly $11,000, including $3,000 in alimony and child support and $2,500 to the Maryland State Ethics Commission.

Cooke did not respond to a message left at his home in Mount Washington. The state’s ethics commission, which regulates lobbying, did not respond to calls about Cooke’s monthly payments, but in the past has cited confidentiality policies when declining to discuss details of its oversight of lobbyists.

In Cooke’s prime, during the decades before his law and lobbying licenses were stripped from him as a result of the conviction, he seemed an inveterate survivor. A long-prominent fixture of the Annapolis powerbrokering scene, Cooke made it through two pot busts in the early 1990s, a previous bankruptcy in 1995, a casino’s accusations of forgery and fraud (he settled out of court in 2000), and a judge’s 2003 contempt ruling for lying during his divorce proceedings. The California conviction, however, put the hurt on him like never before.

A meeting of creditors in Cooke’s bankruptcy, which was discharged by U.S Bankruptcy Judge James F. Schneider on Dec. 14, is scheduled for Feb. 17 at the Garmatz Federal Courthouse downtown. At that time, according to the court’s assistant manager, Ken Ridgeway, creditors can “examine the debtor for his debts” in preparation for the bankruptcy trustee’s disbursements of any of Cooke’s assets that may be sold off to meet his obligations. “The case won’t be closed until the trustee finishes his work,” Ridgeway says. The trustee in Cooke’s case, Bud Stephen Tayman, did not return messages left by City Paper at his office in Greenbelt.

Sebour, who worked for Cooke for a dozen years, remembers her work with him fondly. “He and I got along so well,” she says. “And I truly did admire him and his work.” Her sentiments changed dramatically when her personal sacrifices during his legal struggles went unrecognized—and his debt to her went unmet. “I attempted to keep the law practice going, and it was just such a struggle,” she says. “And he has never spoken to me since.”

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