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It was March 12, and James Cooper was supposed to be doing what he does best — persuading a dozen Washington, D.C., residents that the person across the courtroom was guilty. The problem was that the defendant — a lawyer accused of stealing $130,000 by hiding his mother’s death for 15 years — had decided to plead guilty the night before. While the assistant U.S. attorney couldn’t quibble with the result, his voice betrayed disappointment. “I love a trial when it’s happening,” Cooper says. “I find it invigorating.” Cooper, 38, was hired by U.S. Attorney Roscoe Howard Jr. last year as part of an effort to bring needed strength to the White Collar Crime Section of the D.C. office. Cooper, who prosecuted violent crimes for the office in the mid-1990s, had moved to the Department of Justice in 1997, where he was known as the “go-to guy” for politically sensitive cases. Cooper says he had joined Main Justice to get sophisticated white collar crime experience and that he returned to the D.C. office in July 2002 to cut back on traveling and spend more time with his wife and three-year-old twins. Cooper is currently lead prosecutor in the highest-profile public corruption case in the District since Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) was charged with mail fraud nearly a decade ago. The matter, still under investigation, involves the alleged embezzlement of more than $5 million in Washington Teachers Union funds by its leaders, who are close allies of the local political power structure. Cooper says that when he was handed the case, he knew there was an embezzlement, but did not know who or how much money was involved until search warrants were carried out last year. It was then, he says, that “we realized how huge this thing is.” The searches revealed lavish items — fur coats, a plasma television, and a $57,000 Tiffany tea set — all allegedly purchased with union funds. Thus far, the chauffeur for the union’s president has pleaded guilty to money laundering and agreed to cooperate. On April 11, a former D.C. agency official pleaded guilty to conspiring to launder nearly $500,000 in union money. But the case will test Cooper. For one, he is up against one of D.C.’s best-known lawyers: Frederick Cooke Jr. — formerly counsel to then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, now with Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke — who is representing one chief target. Cooper’s team — drawn from federal and local agencies — must also chase down many leads, including some that have come extremely close to the office of D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams. Stevan Bunnell, chief of the Fraud and Public Corruption Section, says Cooper is made for the task, noting that he resists pressures to engage in fruitless pursuits — even when that means telling a federal agent that the case he brought is no good. “Some prosecutors lose perspective because they’ve been chasing the target too much,” Bunnell says. “James doesn’t do that.” After graduation from Emory University School of Law, Cooper began his career at D.C.’s Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in 1989. But after a year and a half in the litigation and securities enforcement practice groups, Cooper wanted broader experience. “To me, a litigator is a lawyer,” he says. Yet his next move took him further from the courthouse when he joined the staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 1994 Cooper joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the first time. There, over the next three years, he tried roughly 40 cases in D.C. Superior Court — mostly gun, drug, and other violent felonies. He quickly earned a reputation as a good trial lawyer. “I don’t even think he realizes how good his trial style is,” says Preston Burton, a partner with the D.C. firm of Caplin & Drysdale, who worked with Cooper at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “He has a demeanor and presence that jurors just like.” Cooper was hired by Main Justice in 1997, where he worked on a series of public integrity cases, including the report that recommended against appointment of an independent counsel to pursue the 1996 Clinton/Gore campaign finance scandal. Before leaving Justice last year, Cooper wrapped up a month-long trial in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, where the president of a subsidiary of Vivendi Universal SA was convicted of bribing a New Orleans government official. Dan Cogdell, a defense lawyer in the case who is with Cogdell & Goodling, says Cooper did well with the complex five-defendant case. In particular, Cogdell says the D.C.-based Cooper established a good rapport with the judge and jury — an impressive feat for an out-of-towner. “I’m having a blast,” says Cooper. When asked about his next move, however, he admits he has a lot of friends who have found happiness in private practice. And there is always, he adds, “the tawdry issue of the coin” that may drive him that way.

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