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‘Business as usual’


The pending trial of current and former legislators is heightening awareness of political gamesmanship.

Clifton Adcock November 16th, 2011

The testimony presented at the preliminary hearing of state Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, and former Oklahoma City Democratic Sen. Debbe Leftwich, provided more than enough evidence, according to a judge, to send the two to stand trial on bribery charges.

The prosecution’s witnesses, under both state questioning and cross-examination by the defense, offered a peek behind the veil that often separates the public from what goes on at the Legislature.

And to some, what they saw was disappointing.

“I’m sure I’m not the only person who thought of the Otto Von Bismarck quote during the course of this preliminary hearing that (says) ‘laws are like sausages, it’s better not to see them being made,’” said Judge Stephen Alcorn in his ruling at the end of the preliminary hearing Nov. 4.

“Judges tend to be a bit cynical and tend to be realistic, but the court admits to being disappointed at what has repeatedly been described as ‘business as usual’ at the Capitol.”

Witnesses testified about politicians exploiting loopholes in state law to land jobs at state agencies immediately after leaving office, lobbyists essentially writing legislation, vote exchanging by legislators, and playing games with what appears on the ballot.

right, Former Sen. Debbe Leftwich

None of the attorneys nor witnesses said any of the actions were illegal.

In the case itself, prosecutors allege Terrill conspired with Leftwich to create a temporary $80,000 per year job at the dysfunctional state Medical Examiner’s Office that would be filled by Democrat incumbent Leftwich, in order to free up the seat for Republican Rep. Mike Christian. When the deal was exposed, Christian decided not to run for the spot.

Terrill’s attorney, Stephen Jones, said much of what was done was nothing more than legislative horsetrading and negotiation that occurs during every session, and the case is “much ado about nothing.”

Legislative loopholes
Although state law prohibits legislators from having a job paid for with appropriated funds for two years after leaving office, attorneys and witnesses in the hearing repeatedly named former legislators who avoided the “cooling-off” period by getting a state job that is not paid for with appropriated money, but through fees  or federal funds.

Among those legislators are current Secretary of State Glenn Coffee, former Sen. Angela Monson, former Senate Pro Tem Cal Hobson, former Sen. Kevin Easley, former Sen. Howard Hendrick, former House Speaker Glen Johnson, former Rep. Mike Thompson, former Sen. Randy Brogdon and former Rep. Fred Morgan.

right, Rep. Terrill and Stephen Jones

Prosecutors asked Coffee whether it would have been a big deal for a job to have been created for a legislator. Coffee replied that while he had not done so, it would not be a big deal, unless a job was being created specifically for a particular person.

“As it relates to the two-year prohibition, I think the Legislature has been clear. If they wanted to create a hard-and-fast prohibition on two years, they wouldn’t have the two exceptions (fee and federally funded positions),” Coffee said. “As it relates to that, no, I don’t believe it is.”

Meanwhile, a Senate staffer who drafts and amends bills during session, Jennifer Mullens, said on the stand that often, with the permission of a legislator, lobbyists will often dictate to her what language to write into legislation.

Mullens said she was working with Sen. Anthony Sykes on the bill creating the transition coordinator job Leftwich was allegedly supposed to take, when Terrill, a House member and chair of the House Public Safety Committee, came in and asked her to insert language creating the position. Leftwich was also present, she said.

Mullens said she thought the occurrence was unusual, but did not think it was criminal behavior.

“From where I’ve worked, I’ve seen there are a lot of behind-the-scenes deals that are completely legal,” Mullens said. “My assumption was there was a deal being made, but not one that had any criminal implications. Even though it seemed unusual, I never suspected it was anything along these lines.”

Political consultant Chad Alexander, under questioning by defense attorneys, also testified that for challengers, it is often a difficult task to unseat incumbent politicians, and having an incumbent in office may discourage opposition.

One way an incumbent can help select the person who fills their seat next is to file to have their name on the ballot within the three-day window allowed by the state Election Board, wait until the last minute of that three-day window and withdraw their candidacy, allowing their chosen successor to file at the last second and run unopposed.

“It’s happened before,” Alexander said.

Sunshine efforts
Some efforts are currently under way that would increase transparency in the legislative process.

Although a bill that would have included the Legislature in the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records acts did not advance during the last session, the bill’s author, Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, held a House Government Modernization Committee hearing on “Enhancing Transparency of the Legislative Process.”

In addition, House Speaker Kris Steele on announced on Nov. 8 that he had formed a standing House Ethics Committee to develop ethics standards for House members and evaluate questions of ethics in legislative business.

The committee was recommended in September by a House Special Investigative Committee looking into the bribery allegations of Terrill and Leftwich. Congress and 39 other states already have similar committees.

“Expressing differences of opinion on public policy questions is the norm in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. However, it cannot be the norm when it comes to ethics questions concerning a House member,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Gary Banz, R-Midwest City. “Voters have every right to expect their public servants to be honest and display the highest level of integrity.”

 
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