Surgoinsville Water Utility members side with Cooper

Jeff Bobo • Nov 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM

‘But they believe the money he got was for work done, and work accomplished, but it wasn’t stolen.’ — Crystal Goan, SWU attorney

SURGOINSVILLE — Surgoinsville Water Utility officials aren’t ready to concede Water Commissioner Hanes Cooper’s guilt regarding a state Comptroller investigation report released last month which accuses Cooper of misappropriating more than $65,000.

During its regular monthly meeting held last week, the Surgoinsville Water Utility (SWU) board of commissioners unanimously agreed that all money Cooper received during the time period noted in the state investigation was for work that was performed by him for the utility district.

That three member board of commissioners consists of Cooper, Lynn Norris, and Don Thurman who is also a Surgoinsville alderman. SWU attorney Crystal Goan told the Times-News Norris and Thurman are siding with Cooper in the state investigation.

“There’s a grey area there on whether he should have been paid for it or not, but they’re (the other commissioners) siding with him (Cooper) and saying it wasn’t a theft,” Goan said. “But they believe the money he got was for work done, and work accomplished, but it wasn’t stolen. Perhaps under the guidelines, they know now that he shouldn’t have been paid, but it was for work accomplished.

“He may have exceeded the amount he is supposed to be paid by statute, and that is a grey area in the law.”

The comptroller’s investigative report alleges that the situation is more clear cut than that.

The report alleges that between April 1, 1998, and Oct. 31, 2003, Cooper received payments from the SWU “in excess of his lawful compensation” totaling $30,310.

“Sometime in late 2003 a customer of the utility district apparently questioned district personnel regarding Mr. Cooper’s excess compensation,” the report states. “Subsequent to the customer’s inquiries, Mr. Cooper apparently directed that future payments be made to his daughter, Robin Hoffman.”

The comptroller’s investigative report alleges that between Jan. 1, 2004, and Dec. 31, 2007, Hoffman received payments totaling $35,215.

The report further alleges that although Hoffman signed time sheets, the investigation revealed that she allegedly only worked for the water utility on rare occasions, and “certainly not with the frequency indicated by her monthly time sheets.”

Hoffman is also employed at the Surgoinsville Post Office, and the comptroller’s report alleges that her time sheets from that job contradict hours claimed on her utility district time sheets.

“Ms. Hoffman endorsed the backs of district checks issued to her, cashing most and turning others over to her father for his endorsement and deposit, or to be cashed by him,” the report alleges. “It appears that in order to conceal the continued unlawful payments, Mr. Cooper devised and directed a scheme by which fraudulent payroll payments were made to his daughter so that she could pass the proceeds on to Mr. Cooper .”

The comptroller’s report alleges that Cooper received a total of $65,525 in excess compensation.

Although Cooper is not currently charged with a crime, 3rd Judicial District Attorney General Berkeley Bell told the Times-News last month that the allegations will be presented to an upcoming Hawkins County grand jury.

The SWU will not be taking any action to remove Cooper from its commission, at least until what, if any pending legal action against Cooper is concluded, Goan said.

Cooper is also the former longtime Surgoinsville mayor and a member of the Hawkins County Commission.

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