What the hell is going on?
As if a Neanderthal Legislature didn't embarrass our state enough, both nationally and internationally, during the recent session, at least three lawmakers -- and maybe more -- are now targets of an upcoming multi-county grand jury that will investigate public corruption.
Good grief! Another public relations shiner for a state that's endured more than its share of infamy in recent months.
If it's not rolling back reproductive rights to the dark ages, ranting about the need for an armed state militia to protect against the federal government or lashing out against Islam or immigrants, it's legislators concocting a nefarious scheme to expand Republican power in the state Senate.
Brazen, stupid -- or both?
The latest not-so-funny business: Someone -- the grand jury will have to determine who -- sneaked a last-minute "woolly booger" into a bill that would have created an $80,000 a year position in the state medical examiner's office to help coordinate the agency's less-than-15-mile move from Oklahoma City to Edmond.
There's nothing inherently illegal about that, except ...
The Oklahoma County district attorney has reason to believe Republicans conspired to establish the high-paying, pension-enhancing job for a Democratic senator in return for her agreeing not to seek re-election -- thus creating an open seat that Republicans would be well positioned to win.
Gee, it seems only yesterday that Republicans across the country were excoriating the Obama Administration for employment overtures to Rep. Joe Sestak and Andrew Romanoff in ham-handed efforts to keep them from challenging incumbent Democratic U.S. senators in Pennsylvania and Colorado, respectively.
What makes the Oklahoma case even more egregious is that lawmakers are alleged to have played corrupt, power politics with a vital state agency already reeling from its share of mismanagement and scandal.
The medical examiner's office serves a vital role in Oklahoma's criminal justice system -- as an independent, science-based source of facts that helps determine guilt or innocence, especially in murder and manslaughter cases, and provide victims' families the truth about what really happened to their loved ones.
In recent years, though, state lawmakers have let the agency down, failing to provide the funding necessary to keep it cutting edge. And the agency's leadership has let the people of Oklahoma down, its well-documented turmoil ranging from sexual harassment of workers to questionable forensics, sloppy record-keeping to mishandling of evidence.
The agency's former chief investigator, Kevin Rowland, is accused of raping a female co-worker. The most recent chief medical examiner, Dr. Collie Trant, was fired in February without explanation, purportedly leaving behind a backlog of more than 70 unfinished autopsies. And even the recently appointed interim chief, Dr. Andrew Sibley of Tulsa, was thrust into the headlines because of accusations he sexually harassed employees in both Oklahoma and Arizona (which he denies).
"I told (the agency's spokeswoman) that if it weren't for bad luck, they wouldn't have any luck at all," said retiring Democratic Rep. Lucky Lamons, a former Tulsa police officer who worked tirelessly to solve problems in the medical examiner's office.
"I do worry about the cases in Tulsa when they involve the ME's office. It's something a defense attorney can use" to undermine criminal prosecutions.
Lawmakers, of course, insist they took important steps this session to clean up the mess, paving the way, for example, for the medical examiner's office to escape its antiquated facilities in the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center complex, just south of the Capitol, and relocate to Edmond, near the University of Central Oklahoma and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation's swank new digs.
But word that Oklahoma County DA David Prater planned to take allegations about the proposed transition coordinator's job to the multi-county grand jury, convening in July, prompted Gov. Brad Henry to veto the legislation, even though, as he noted, it included "many important reforms and efficiencies" designed to get the medical examiner's office back on track.
Unfortunately, lawmakers have a track record of meddling in state agencies, making things worse. An obvious example is the state Ethics Commission, the constitutionally-mandated watchdog that's supposed to ensure candidates, their financial supporters and lobbyists play by the rules.
Legislative leaders in recent years worked incessantly to muzzle the watchdog, not only starving it financially, but also brow-beating its executive director in public and threatening -- in a childish fit of pique -- to even tinker with its name (of course, the Legislature has no authority to do so since it is a constitutionally-mandated agency approved by the voters).
The truth is, legislative honchos want the illusion of an independent watchdog keeping Oklahoma's campaigns and lawmaking clean, but they don't want it to have any real bite because the current system favors incumbents, especially with the flow of campaign and lobbying dollars.
I view the Legislature's starving of the Ethics Commission to be nothing short of criminal but not in a prosecutable sense. It's more a matter of good government policy versus bad. But the Oklahoma County prosecutor's suspicions about how and why lawmakers tried to create a transition coordinator in the medical examiner's office are totally different.
Prater has confirmed publicly that Republican Reps. Randy Terrill of Moore and Mike Christian of Oklahoma City and Democratic Sen. Debbe Leftwich of Oklahoma City are in the investigative crosshairs.
The goal allegedly was to persuade Leftwich to not seek re-election, creating an opening for Christian. On the session's final day, Leftwich announced she would not run again. Almost immediately, Christian declared he would seek her seat. When the district attorney confirmed he had been presented troubling evidence about the matter, Christian changed his mind and filed for re-election to his House seat. Terrill, Christian and Leftwich all have denied any wrongdoing.
Not surprisingly, the news also sparked considerable speculation that other lawmakers -- including higher-ups in both the Senate and House -- could be implicated in a scheme to increase the GOP's 26-22 Senate majority.
No one knows how this will play out, of course. But there is one thing you should know before the grand jury convenes: Prater is widely regarded in central Oklahoma as a straight-shooter, a scrupulously careful and fair prosecutor who doesn't over-reach. Yes, he's a Democrat, but he's never displayed any penchant for partisan prosecutions or political witch-hunts.
That should be heartening for Oklahoma's taxpayers or anyone who cares about honest, good government. Political investigations can be explosive any time, but especially during election years.
The three-day candidate filing period opened the day after the scandal was first reported on the front page of the state's largest newspaper, the Oklahoman. Terrill and Christian both drew multiple opponents. Perhaps they would have anyway.
Both may survive politically, but in a year of widespread anti-incumbency fervor, nothing can be certain.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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