Okla. lawmakers question conduct after convictions
by TIM TALLEY Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — For the second time in as many years, an Oklahoma jury has convicted a former state lawmaker of a crime arising from his alleged conduct while in office.
Last year, former state Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan was convicted on a federal bribery charge that accused him of taking a $12,000 bribe in exchange for his influence on legislation.
On Tuesday, former state Rep. Randy Terrill was convicted on a state bribery charge that accused him of offering a legislative colleague a state job in exchange for her promise not to seek re-election.
That colleague, former state Sen. Debbe Leftwich, is scheduled to go on trial on a related bribery charge next month. She has pleaded not guilty.
Amid the scrutiny, members of the state House and Senate are considering whether the way they conduct the people’s business and the multiple prosecutions will chill legislative debate and action.
“I think what it says to anybody is that transparency and playing by the rules is the first order of business,” said Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City. “Everything should be done within the letter of the law.
“There has been lots of discussion that this may or may not have a chilling effect. I don’t think that it will.”
Morrissette’s comments were echoed by other lawmakers who said the criminal cases involving their former colleagues should not affect their public responsibilities.
“I certainly don’t have those concerns,” said Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore. “I think that we’re doing our duty in serving our constituents. I have not heard anyone express concern about proposing legislation that might jeopardize them in some legal way.”
Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Dacoma, said the prosecutions are “a message to those who might operate on the margins.”
“We really need to be very serious about the way we conduct business at the Capitol,” Hickman said.
Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, said the allegations of official wrongdoing are also a warning to state lawmakers to do a better job of cleaning up their own houses.
“The allegations that were made should be prosecuted,” Jolley said. “My only regrets would be when a prosecutor finds it and the body does not on its own.”
Evidence of wrongdoing against a lawmaker should be thoroughly investigated to determine if the member should be removed from office and then referred for prosecution, he said.
“I think it’s the responsibility of a body to clean its own house,” Jolley said.
A House committee was formed to investigate Terrill’s activities after the charges were filed. In 2011, the committee declined to take any action.
Morgan, D-Stillwater, was sentenced to five years’ probation after being convicted of taking a $12,000 bribe from an assisted-living center in exchange for attempting to influence legislation that would have eased regulations on the state’s nursing home industry. A jury acquitted him of related extortion and mail fraud counts and could not reach a verdict on other counts.
Morgan is appealing his conviction and maintains the money was actually payment of his legal fees.
Terrill, R-Moore, allegedly offered to put Leftwich in an $80,000-a-year job at the medical examiner’s office if she would agree to not seek re-election in 2010 so a Republican colleague of Terrill’s could run for her open seat.
Terrill testified in his own defense during his trial, claiming he did not offer Leftwich a job and that she never asked him for one. He was convicted of offering a bribe for withdrawal of candidacy, and his jury recommended that he serve one year in prison and pay a $5,000 fine.
Leftwich is accused of soliciting a bribe for withdrawal of candidacy. Jury selection for her trial is scheduled to begin on Dec. 9.
The criminal trials have focused attention on how the Oklahoma Legislature conducts its business, but lawmakers said it has also raised other issues.
Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, said Terrill’s conviction was due in part to a state law that defines a candidate for public office as a person who has raised or spent campaign funds. Leftwich had raised campaign funds for the 2010 election but she never filed as a candidate.
“The impact should be that the Legislature ought to clarify the law,” Reynolds said. “I think that the idea that you become a candidate when you put together a campaign committee is inappropriate.”
He said state campaign records include dozens of examples of people who formed campaign committees that are dormant.
“Sometimes people put together a committee and they don’t raise any money,” Reynolds said. Some potential candidates change their mind after a campaign committee is formed or decide to run for another office, he said.
Wesselhoft said the criminal prosecutions are part of a wider discussion among House Republicans about the increasing role of courts in state government.
“We think the courts are a little out of control,” Wesselhoft said. “They’ve kind of become a ‘Super Legislature.’”
In June, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down civil justice reform legislation adopted in 2009 that was a priority for Republican legislative leaders.
The high court said the law was unconstitutional because it contained multiple subjects in violation of the state Constitution’s rule that requires legislation to cover just one subject. The Legislature approved a series of individual bills that reinstated the civil justice law during a special session in September.
In August, an Oklahoma County judge blocked a new state law that would make it harder for women to obtain the morning-after pill, one of a number of anti-abortion related measures approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature that have been struck down as unconstitutional in recent years.
Also in August, a federal judge prohibited Oklahoma officials from certifying the results of a 2010 statewide election that approved a constitutional amendment to prohibit state courts from considering international or Islamic law when deciding cases. State Question 755 was passed with 70 percent of the votes in a statewide election.
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