Impact Of Possible Incompetency Ruling Unclear

Wednesday, October 17th 2007, 6:50 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ It's unclear how former state Senator Gene Stipe's business affairs would be affected if he were to be declared mentally incompetent as he faces federal felony charges.

At a hearing on Monday, a federal judge said a psychologist for a prison hospital had found the 80-year-old Stipe mentally incompetent.

That led to speculation over what would happen if the judge reached the same conclusion after a hearing on Stipe's mental fitness.

Experts agree such a ruling would have a major impact on the criminal cases against Stipe, as well as probably affecting his business empire in at least some areas.

Clark Brewster, Stipe's attorney, said it's premature to speculate on that, but it would be an important development. He said there has to be ``mental intent'' to commit a crime.

``The problem is you can't generalize on something like that,'' he said, regarding Stipe's ability to continue in business if he were found to be incompetent.

``It's a myriad, or a cluster of many different legal issues, that is imposed in this area of law,'' Brewster said.

For much of his legislative career, Stipe has had a wide range of business enterprises, from real estate holdings, to interest in a string of small newspapers, convenience stores and abstract companies, to oil and gas operations.

That's not to mention his law firm, which has offices in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and McAlester. Stipe has surrendered his license to practice law, but his law firm continues to operate.

Cheryl Wattley, associate professor of criminal law at the University of Oklahoma, said Tuesday it depends on the facts of a case whether a court would intervene in the business affairs of a criminal defendant judged to be mentally incompetent.

``The court probably would not have anything to do with the business affairs unless the allegation is related to a perpetuation of some sort of fraudulent scheme, money laundering or some type of illegal activity,'' Wattley said.

If the businesses involved illegal activity, she said a judge would have jurisdiction and could, for instance, appoint a receiver.

Wattley said if a criminal defendant is found to be incompetent, then those who have a stake in a defendant's businesses, such as shareholders or business partners, could file a civil action in state court to protect their interests.

``It would fall within the state guardianship competency statutes,'' she said.

Judge Ronald White has granted a continuance in a mental competency hearing for Stipe until Nov. 5 to give Brewster time to find a qualified psychologist to evaluate tests given to the ex-lawmaker last month at a hospital for federal prisoners in Springfield, Mo.

``I don't think I'm incompetent, no I don't,'' Stipe said outside the courtroom in Muskogee. ``The bankers don't think I am either.''

Stipe said he operated 3,500 oil and gas properties.

Federal officials say if a criminal defendant is deemed to be incompetent, the defendant can be hospitalized to determine whether he can regain competence. If he is deemed not to be a threat to himself or others, he can be ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment or the government can seek to send him to a mental hospital or a nursing home.

Stipe was brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair and watched Monday's proceedings intently. At a hearing in August, the judge said Stipe appeared to be either on drugs or hypnotized and ordered him to be tested in Springfield.

He and his brother, Francis, have been charged with mail fraud, conspiracy, witness tampering and money laundering linked to a real estate deal involving a pet food company and legislative appropriations. Their arraignment is set Nov. 16.

The government also is trying to revoke Stipe's probation, saying he has engaged in another illegal campaign-funding scheme in 2006 and has associated with a convicted felon.

Former state Rep. Mike Mass has been charged in the case and is to be sentenced on Thursday. He is cooperating with federal prosecutors.

The indictment naming the Stipes alleges a conspiracy to give a $48,000 kickback to Mass, has pleaded guilty to mail fraud.

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