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story.lead_photo.caption Former state Rep. Eddie Cooper is shown in this 2009 file photo.

Former state Rep. Eddie Wayne Cooper pleaded guilty Monday in Missouri to conspiring with others to embezzle more than $4 million from a Missouri-based nonprofit.

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Among the conspirators was an unnamed lobbyist from Rogers, according to Cooper's plea documents.

Cooper, 51, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to embezzle from Preferred Family Healthcare of Springfield, Mo. Calls to his public defender in federal court in Springfield were not returned Monday. Under federal law, nonprofits that receive federal funds, such as Medicaid, are barred from direct lobbying efforts. Cooper entered his plea before U.S. Magistrate Judge David P. Rush in Springfield.

From 2011-17, Cooper received at least $387,501 from an Arkansas lobbying firm that received $3 million from Preferred Family from 2010-17. The nonprofit's financial records show its payments were for "consulting services" when the real purpose of the payments was for lobbying and political campaign contributions, the plea documents say.

Cooper also received at least $63,000 in kickbacks in the conspiracy, according to his plea. Cooper must forfeit those gains to the government under the terms of his plea. He also faces up to five years in prison.

The lobbying efforts were to get grants and other funding, including money from Arkansas' General Improvement Fund, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney for the western district of Missouri.

Cooper, a Democrat from Melbourne, was an executive in Preferred Family Healthcare's operations in Arkansas from April 20, 2009, until April 26, 2017, in addition to being a lobbyist, according to court records.

Three unnamed executives of Preferred Family and its Arkansas lobbyist conspired with Cooper to pay the lobbyist's firm $3 million, the plea documents say.

Another $1 million of Preferred Family's money went to lobbyist Donald Andrew Jones. Jones, 62, of Willingboro, N.J., pleaded guilty in federal court in Springfield on Dec. 18, 2017, to a similar charge of being paid for illegal lobbying services. Jones also paid $45,000 of the $63,000 in kickbacks directly to Cooper, according to Cooper's plea documents.

According to Arkansas secretary of state records, Cooper was a registered lobbyist for the Cranford Coalition Inc. from 2011-15. That Little Rock lobbying firm was founded by Milton R. "Rusty" Cranford, a former resident of Rogers. Calls to the Cranford Coalition were not returned Monday.

Cranford was mentioned by name in a pretrial hearing in the corruption case of former state Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale. Cranford was chief executive of AmeriWorks, a Bentonville-based nonprofit accused of paying kickbacks to Woods and then-state Rep. Micah Neal, also R-Springdale, in return for their support in securing a $400,000 state grant. The grant was returned after federal investigators began questioning it, according to court documents in Wood's case. Neal pleaded guilty Jan. 4, 2017, to one count of conspiracy for his role.

Woods faces trial April 9 in the AmeriWorks kickback and in a similar case in which he is accused of receiving kickbacks in return for grants from Ecclesia College in Springdale. Two of his alleged co-conspirators also go to trial with the former senator: Oren Paris III, president of Ecclesia College, and consultant Randell G. Shelton Jr., formerly of Alma. The three are accused in a federal indictment of participating in a kickback scheme.

The Preferred Family executives in Cooper's plea are identified only as the chief financial officer, the chief operating officer and the chief executive officer. The chief financial officer and chief operating officer, along with another member of the executive team, were placed on indefinite leave in November by Preferred Family's board of directors. The company spokesman would not comment on why.

The chief financial officer placed on leave was Tom Goss of Springfield. His wife, Bontiea, is chief operating officer. Also placed on leave was Marilyn Nolan of Springfield, described by the nonprofit as a member of the senior management team.

The Springdale office of Decision Point, a behavioral health provider run by Preferred Family, processed the AmeriWorks grant and received the $400,000 on AmeriWorks' behalf. Tom Goss' signature stamp was on the check that refunded the $400,000 for AmeriWorks, grant records show.

Cranford was removed by Alternative Opportunities as director of its Arkansas operations on Jan. 13, 2017.

A sentencing hearing for Cooper will be scheduled after the completion of a presentencing report.

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Metro on 02/13/2018

Print Headline: Ex-lawmaker pleads guilty to conspiring; sought to embezzle $4M from nonprofit, he admits

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