Former U.S. congressman Wes Cooley, a Republican rancher from Alfalfa whose fast rise to Salem and Capitol Hill ended when he became ensnared in scandals in the 1990s, has died at a Bend hospital, his wife said. He was 82.
In an e-mail to friends, Rosemary Cooley said her husband passed away early Wednesday afternoon at St. Charles Bend, surrounded by his family.
“It goes without saying that our hearts are broken,” she wrote on behalf of the family. “We will miss him more than words can say.”
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., issued a statement Thursday on Cooley’s passing.
“My thoughts and prayers are with the family of Wes Cooley during this difficult time of loss,” the congressman said. “Despite his various legal issues over the last 20 years, I know he cared deeply about the rural West and the country.”
Wester Shadric “Wes” Cooley was born in Los Angeles, served in the U.S. Army from 1952 to 1954 and was elected to the Oregon Senate in 1992.
Two years later, midway through his four-year term, Cooley was elected to the U.S. House to serve the sprawling Second District, which encompasses southern, central and eastern Oregon, succeeding retiring Bob Smith.
Cooley, who loved to race motorcycles and owned the vitamin supplements company Rose Laboratories, was a strong advocate of private property rights, tort reforms and other elements of the GOP’s “Contract with America.”
Kay Knott of Sisters, a long-time friend, recalled him best as a “strong supporter of agriculture.”
“I would also say that Wes was not afraid to speak his mind, and was not a ‘go along to get along’ person,” Knott recalled. “He believed in grassroots activism and was for the people. He was not afraid to stand up for his beliefs, even if it meant opposing his party and even the president. Our hearts and prayers are with Rosemary.”
Trouble arose in 1996, when media reports began to question Cooley’s statement in the 1994 Oregon Voter’s Guide that he had served in the Army Special Forces in Korea. Charges also arose – denied vigorously by Cooley – that he and his wife had kept their marriage secret for several years so she could continue receiving veteran’s benefits from a prior marriage.
Cooley was unopposed for re-nomination in the May 1996 primary, but as the scandal drew more attention, he came under increasing pressure from fellow Republicans – including campaign manager Walden and House Speaker Newt Gingrich – to step down, and he withdrew from the race that August. A special nominating convention chose Bob Smith to replace him on the ballot, and Smith went on to defeat Democrat nominee (and Deschutes County DA) Mike Dugan.
That December, Cooley was indicted for lying about his military service in the 1994 Voter’s Pamphlet. He claimed the documents proving his claim were destroyed in a fire. However, he later accepted a plea agreement and was convicted of lying in an official document. He was sentenced to probation, community service and a fine.
In January 2009, Cooley was indicted in California on money-laundering and filing a false tax return in 2002 for his role in an alleged Internet investment scheme associated with the sale of shares in bidbay.com that reportedly bilked more than $10 million from investors. Cooley was accused of falsely claiming it had been bought by online giant eBay.
In late 2012, he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison after pleading guilty to hiding $494,000 from the IRS. He also was ordered to pay back taxes of about $138,000 and $3.5 million restitution to victims of the investment fraud scheme.
Cooley was released from prison in September 2013, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons records reviewed by The Oregonian.