County government vulnerable to scandal, prosecutor says

Thursday, March 10th 2005, 9:29 am

By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ County government in Oklahoma remains inefficient and still prone to kickback schemes that led to the largest corruption scandal in American history, a former U.S. prosecutor told a special House committee.

Bill Price, the lead federal prosecutor during the commissioner scandal in the 1980s, said Oklahoma's system makes a county's three commissioners ``king of each area.''

Price testified before a special House task force investigating possible reforms for Tulsa and Oklahoma counties.

House Speaker Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville, ordered the creation of a panel to study a number of reforms, including an option of allowing residents to choose their own form of county government. Called ``home rule,'' the proposal is intensely opposed by the powerful county government lobby.

The federal investigation into Oklahoma County government began in 1978, Price said, when a Stephens County grand jury noticed the purchase of five times the amount of lumber needed to rebuild every bridge in the county ``and nobody could find the lumber.''

After hundreds of tape recordings, IRS and FBI agents discovered the majority of goods _ mostly road supplies _ bought by counties since statehood didn't exist, Price said.

``And the rest were bought with 10 percent kickbacks,'' he said. ``And the shame of the 10 percent kickbacks is you think it costs the county 10 percent. It really costs the county more like 30 percent because there's a whole layer of middle men that tack on those costs.''

Price pointed to the efficiency of the county government system in Kansas, where counties operate similarly to cities in Oklahoma, where a part-time board of commissioners often oversees a full-time professional manager.

During the county government scandal in Oklahoma, Price said suppliers operating in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma told him 90 percent of their Oklahoma business was crooked while 90 percent of business in Kansas was honest.

``You can't convince me that someone in a border county of Oklahoma has a different culture than a border county in Kansas,'' he said. ``The structure meant enormous differences in terms of the degree of corruption because there weren't any checks and balances in our system and there was in their system.

``I just can't figure out why we can't let voters in counties have that same freedom. If it works, it might spread.''

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