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Quick and Dirty

Cooke-d

By Van Smith | Posted 2/2/2005

It would make a good pop song: “The Ballad of Ira Cooke,” a cautionary tale about a powerful man who played it close to the edge—until he fell off. The 58-year-old lawyer/lobbyist started living large in 1979 when he began raking in big bucks as a corporate lobbyist during the annual flirtation that is the Maryland General Assembly session. Since then, Cooke has taken at least a supporting role in a host of Annapolis ethics scandals. He also had two pot busts in one year in the early 1990s—raps for which the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission, which disciplines lawyers, chose to take no action—filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in 1995; had a $3 million out-of-court settlement in 2000 with a casino company that alleged Cooke committed forgery and fraud; and misreported his finances in a divorce case in 2003.

Finally, though, something stuck to Ira Cooke: a Dec. 8 California conviction on theft, bribery, and conspiracy charges for his role in defrauding the Desert Counseling Clinic in Bakersfield. Until indictments in the case were filed in the fall of 2003, Cooke was employed to drum up business for the mental-health clinic in Maryland (“Not in Kansas Anymore . . . ,” Mobtown Beat, Nov. 26, 2003; “California Scheming,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 29, 2003). Now the clinic is defunct, and Cooke is facing five years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service. He is splitting the burden, with co-defendant Bobbie Cumberworth, of repaying $57,000 by next January—the amount in kickbacks the case uncovered.

Cooke’s criminal-defense attorney, Gregg Bernstein, says he expects that his client will be “voluntarily consenting to disbarment as a result of the conviction,” thus sparing the aforementioned Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission the tough task of conducting a formal inquest. As for Cooke’s license to lobby, Bernstein says that, thus far, the Maryland State Ethics Commission—which regulates lobbyists and bars them from committing “a criminal offense arising from lobbyist activity”—hasn’t made a final determination, but that Cooke is not lobbying this year.

“Everything we do here is confidential,” Maryland State Ethics Commission executive director Suzanne Fox says, declining to discuss the Cooke case—though she acknowledges the commission’s prohibition on lobbyists committing crimes arising from lobbying. According to the commission’s online records, Cooke was registered as a Maryland lobbyist for Desert Counseling Clinic for one year starting in November 2001, while the $57,000 in kickbacks from the clinic was paid from 2000 to ’02. Whether these facts make for a lobbying-related crime is a matter for the ethics commission to decide.

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