State Lawmakers, Other Elected Officials Experience Legal Troubles

Saturday, September 1st 2007, 3:08 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The last few years have not been good ones for several current and former elected officials in Oklahoma, who have been hit with charges ranging from embezzlement to drunk driving.

The consequences of their misdeeds have ranged from ruined legacies and loss of office, to jail time, to embarrassment and ridicule.

State Sen. Jeff Rabon, D-Hugo, is the latest lawmaker to get in trouble, landing in jail on a drunk driving complaint after an accident in his hometown.

A public corruption scandal in southeastern Oklahoma has led to a felony charge against former Rep. Mike Mass, D-Hartshorne, who has admitted taking kickbacks and is cooperating with federal investigators.

Former state Sen. Gene Stipe, D-McAlester, is at the center of that probe.

Stipe was forced from office after more than a half-century in 2003 for funneling $245,000 into the unsuccessful congressional campaign of former Rep. Walt Roberts.

The ex-senator was placed on five years probation, but now is accused of exceeding funding limits again by using phony donors to pour $34,500 into U.S. Rep. Dan Boren's 2006 campaign.

Prosecutors also are seeking revocation of Stipe's probation because of his association with a convicted felon.

A federal judge last week ordered the 80-year-old former senator to undergo a mental examination at a hospital for federal prisoners in Springfield, Mo.

Stipe's latest troubles began after investigators zeroed in on a scheme to direct state funds into the private businesses of longtime associate Steve Phipps, who has pleaded guilty to a felony and is a cooperating with the government.

Federal investigators have questioned Auditor and Inspector Jeff McMahan about trip expenses paid for by Phipps, who has interests in several abstract companies. McMahan's office regulates the abstract industry.

FBI agents, according to a published report, have seized campaign records from McMahan's Tecumseh home and jewelry from his sister-in-law's residence.

At least one piece of jewelry was reportedly purchased by Phipps, who has admitted paying kickbacks to Mass and two other former lawmakers.

Former Insurance Commissioner Carroll Fisher was forced out of office in 2004 after being impeached by the House. Fisher has been convicted of embezzlement and perjury charges and faces trial on other charges stemming from alleged misconduct in office.

Fisher was arrested and convicted of drunk driving before he faced more serious charges.

Drinking and politics have long been a common mixture, but it is a combination that has led to the undoing of several lawmakers over the years.

While they may not rival the episode in a Minneapolis airport men's room that led to calls for the resignation of U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, Oklahoma lawmakers have had plenty of embarrassing escapades.

In 2004, former Rep. Mike O'Neal, R-Enid, was initially charged with felony sexual battery after a woman said the lawmaker grabbed her buttocks at a motel lounge and made vulgar remarks. The charge was reduced to a misdemeanor count of outraging public decency.

O'Neal did not seek re-election. The case led to a new law that requires a lawmaker to pay back the state for any legislative pay he got while he was in jail before the case was adjudicated.

State Rep. John Trebilcock, R-Broken Arrow, was arrested for driving under the influence earlier this year in Tulsa. The arresting officer quoted Trebilcock as saying he smelled of alcohol because he had ``just kissed a girl who had been drinking.''

In 2005, Cal Hobson, after over two decades as one of the Legislature's top policymakers, was forced to give up his top Senate post by his Democratic colleagues after his drinking became an issue.

Hobson, D-Lexington, said he took steps to deal with his problem. He ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor the next year and now is an official at the University of Oklahoma.

The Legislature does not have a specific program to deal with personal problems such as substance abuse, but lawmakers can avail themselves to the Employee Assistance Program, which is in place for all state employees.

Jimmy Durant, chairman of an advisory committee, said the program covers a wide range of issues, from marital and financial problems to alcohol and drug issues.

Durant said he did not know if lawmakers have taken part in the program and if they had, it would be confidential.

Former state Rep. Ron Kirby, D-Lawton, now a Comanche County commissioner, has had brushes with the law involving alcohol.

Kirby, who had a DUI arrest before becoming a lawmaker, said ``it doesn't mean you are a bad person'' but ``the laws are there for a purpose.''

He said he has made some lifestyle changes after he became critically ill with severe bronchitis before he was term-limited in 2004.

Lawmakers, with all the wining and dining from lobbyists and others, have plenty of chances to get in trouble, he said.

``You get caught up in all of the privileges with being an elected official. People slap you on the back. It's easy to fall into a trap,'' he said.

Since the start of the decade, state and federal prosecutors have unearthed bribery and kickback scandals involving several state agencies, including the Department of Health and the Oklahoma Tax Commission.

Former Deputy Health Commissioner Brent VanMeter was among those sent to prison in the health agency scandal. Testimony showed he used money he got from nursing home operators to feed a gambling habit.

Even prosecutors have not been immune to impropriety, with one prosecutor indicted for embezzlement in 2006 and another for taking drugs from a crime scene.