Curious Case of Congressman Cook

Sour grapes over a series of post-election firings are behind stories of curious, erratic behavior by Rep. Merrill Cook, says a spokeswoman for the Utah Republican.

Staffers fired following Cook's election victory have questioned the congressman's state of mind. They have raised questions involving possible depression, an explosive temper and, most recently, a curious incident following the election in which a staffer said Cook didn't realize the race was over.

"What you have to do is look at the motive here," said Cook spokeswoman Marnie Funk. "These people had worked for Merrill in some cases for years. Why did they stay? They get fired and suddenly there's a terrible problem with the congressman?"

According to some members of his staff, days after his 10-point election victory, Cook was disoriented and ranting that he had to win the race at all costs.

In a Nov. 7 staff email, just-fired chief of staff Janet Jenson warned that Cook was becoming increasingly erratic, and she told staffers: "If he asks you to fax his underwear to the speaker's office, please just do it."

Jenson went on to say in another email that the Republican congressman "was then having and is continuing to have some kind of psychotic breakdown," displaying paranoia, delusional behavior and explosive mood swings.

"Merrill has taken up permanent residence in whacko land, and we are all in serious jeopardy," she wrote.

Jenson was fired the day after the Nov. 3 election. The congressman also fired his district director around the same time. Two other staff members resigned, at least one in protest against Jenson's firing.

The emails were first reported Thursday in The Salt Lake Tribune. Copies have since been obtained by The Associated Press.

Cook's supporters denied the 53-year-old congressman has suffered a break from reality and accused Jenson and other fired staffers of orchestrating a campaign of half-truths and hyperbole to avenge their dismissals.

They said the congressman was certainly anxious over his neck-and-neck race with Democrat Lily Eskelsen. Funk acknowledged that Cook, the millionaire owner of a mining explosives firm, has long been known for an explosive temper. But he's not crazy, she said.

Just days before the election, he was banned from Utah's Republican Party headquarters after he threw an obscenity-laced temper tantrum.

Shortly after the election, in a disjointed radio interview in which he continued to attack his vanquished opponent, Cook accused a reporter who had written an unfavorable story about him of being intoxicated during an interview.

GOP executive director SpenceStokes said he worries about Cook's temper and behavior but said the congressman continues to enjoy the party's backing, at least for the time being. "It's in Congressman Cook's court," Stokes said.

Cook is an independent, populist-turned-Republican who had lost six campaigns over 11 years, from county commissioner to governor before winning the congressional seat abandoned by scandal-plagued Enid Greene in 1996.

Over the years, Cook has been caught cursing like a sailor, despite his adherence to the Mormon religion, which frowns on coarse language. His blowups are legendary among reporters and others who have witnessed his dozen years on the Utah political scene.

"Merrill Cook is guilty of having a temper," Funk said. But "It's because he's passionate about what he does."

Jenson, in a Nov. 8 email to staffers, claimed she was the target of a verbal attack by Cook, who accused her of not working hard enough to win the election - three days after he skated to a 53-43 percent win.

She warned others that Cook could fire them all and said he had, at one point, called the Capitol police to have them all arrested. Capitol police officials said Thursday they could not comment on any contact between a congressman and the department.

Jenson has refused interview requests and on Thursday issued a statement insisting she never intended the emails to be made public.

It was Cook supporters, insisting on anonymity, who provided AP with copies of the email because they believe Jenson is out to get Cook.

Cook's defenders pointed to a parenthetical line in one of the emails: "This will also be a great way to leak out how many of us Merrill is assassinating."

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