By Patrick B. McGuigan
In the vision crafted last spring by state Rep. Randy Terrill, this week Sen. Debbe Leftwich was supposed to be in place as Transition Coordinator at the Oklahoma state Medical Examiner's office. The job had been designated by Terrill to begin “On or before January 1, 2011.”
Instead, the pair will surrender on bribery charges in connection with the details surrounding two bills Terrill had carefully crafted, allegedly in return for her departure from office. Their moments of surrender will likely be separate, but are expected to occur Monday (January 3) at the Oklahoma County Courthouse.
On December 22, one charge each was filed against the pair by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater.
After allegations first emerged in June, Terrill passed roughly six months in public silence, in dramatic contrast to his prior history as a willing subject for news media interviews on virtually any subject. Along the way, he won re-election easily in his heavily Republican House District 53 in south Oklahoma City/Moore. After November, 2, he began occasionally speaking critically of Republican party leaders.
After Prater filed the charges, Terrill struck back in an email sent to some reporters, including Nolan Clay of The Oklahoman.
Clay reported Terrill professed innocence, saying, “I've done nothing improper and I'm confident I will be exonerated. But the whole point of filing the charge is simply to damage me politically, and I seriously doubt there is even an expectation that it will succeed as a matter of law.”
Prater, a Democrat who did not attract opposition in November, denied political motivations, saying, “My job has nothing to do with politics.” Former Sen. Leftwich is also a Democrat.
Formal charges consist of two counts. In the first, Prater asserts that during the 2010 legislative session, Rep. Terrill “feloniously committed” a crime, namely: “offering a bribe for withdrawal of candidacy.” The count specifies Terrill offered the bribe to then-Sen. Leftwich in the form of creating a job for her at the Medical Examiner's office, in return for her “withdrawing her candidacy for Oklahoma State Senate Seat 44.” This action would violate “Section 16-107” of Title 26 in state law.
In the second charge, Leftwich is accused of having “feloniously committed” a crime, i.e. “soliciting and/or accepting a bribe from another in the form of “a thing of value” – the job at the M.E.'s office – in return for withdrawing her candidacy. Such action would violate “Section 16-108 of Title 26.”
An affidavit of probable cause presented with the charges was prepared by Gary Eastridge, a 32-year veteran police officer. His narrative was constructed from “grand jury subpoenas, voluntary interviews, public record searches, unsolicited contacts, review of Oklahoma Law, and other investigative methods.”
In addition to the bribery prohibitions, other provisions of state law within the scope of the investigation include Article 5, section 23 of the state Constitution, which forbids a legislator from taking a state job within two years of leaving office, and an attorney general's interpretation of that provision concluding a state job paid for by unappropriated monies can be taken. (Yet, the interpretation of that latter provision is also a matter of some debate.)
At the center of the investigation has been the process surrounding enactment of Senate Bill 738 and House Bill 2486, and assertions those bills were the method by which Terrill created a job specifically for Leftwich, in return for her withdrawal from reelection. A third player (cleared of criminal suspicion) was state Rep. Mike Christian of District 93, another Southside House district.
Christian's interest in S.D. 44
According to Eastridge, “Rep. Christian had voiced an interest in running for Senate District 44, but didn't want to run against an incumbent.” His “ultimate goal was to seek election for the Oklahoma County sheriff's position.” With those posts on separate cycles, Christian could seek the sheriff's job while remaining in the Senate, if elected.
In February 2010, sensing Leftwich was “losing influence,” Christian asked his political consultants, AH Strategies, to consider conducting a poll “to gauge the likelihood of his success in a race against Leftwich.” The poll was not then conducted because Christian could not pay for it, but a short time later, Jerrod Berja of the GOP Senate Political Action Committee contacted Christian, encouraging him to consider a Senate run.
Christian told investigators Leftwich called him, “upset and crying,” to say she “thought we were friends,” but had heard he was considering a race. He downplayed it, then contacted Rep. Terrill to tell him she was upset. Within days, Chad Alexander of consulting firm Majority Designs told Christian that Leftwich might not run, but “was going to take a job at the Medical Examiner's Office.” Later, Eastridge writes, Alexander and Fount Holland of AH Strategies were promised a $40,000 “victory bonus” if Christian won Leftwich's seat.
At a “Sine Die” (adjournment) party, Christian had too much to drink and began talking about the Senate. According to the affidavit, “The next day Terrill called Christian and told him to keep his mouth shut.” Leftwich also called and asked him not to discuss it.
Rep. Christian remained interested in seeking the seat. On May 29 (the day after adjournment), Leftwich said she would not seek reelection. On May 31, Christian announced his Senate candidacy. He withdrew on June 4 as turmoil built about Terrill's bills, announcing he would instead seek reelection to the House. He won that race.
The two bills Terrill pushed
As for the two bills wrapped up in the alleged bribe, S.B. 738 was first introduced in 2009, with the sponsorship of Senate President Pro Temp Glenn Coffee and more recent shepherding by Sen. Anthony Sykes of Moore. Sykes met with Rep. Terrill on May 16 at the International House of Pancakes in Moore, where they were joined by Sen. Leftwich. Sykes told Eastridge the bill was discussed, but that he did not remember if “transition coordinator” was part of the conversation. At that point in time, the legislation did not include creation of that post.
A Senate staffer came to Sykes' office on May 18, to meet with him, Terrill and Leftwich. Eastridge writes: “The staffer stated only Terrill discussed specific changes in the bill directly with her. … Terrill was very specific on changes” and “dictated the language he wanted added. … She recorded those changes and provided a copy of her handwritten notes from the meeting.” By Terrill's lead, the transition coordinator job emerged. Salary and date for the position to be filled was settled. She said the specificity was “a red flag.” According to Eastridge, “Sykes and Leftwich did not offer input on the transition coordinator language dictated by Terrill, but listened and appeared familiar with the proposed amendments to the bill.” Sykes told investigators “[H]e was suspicious of the language, but if there was problem with it the [conference] committee would get rid of it.”
On a somewhat slower track, Rep. Terrill was guiding House Bill 2468 to passage. On May 25, Terrill informed Sykes he was creating a funding mechanism to divert money to the M.E.'s office from the Drug Money Laundering and Wire Transmitter Revolving Fund (in the Bureau of Narcotics budget).
Although he knew about the envisioned diversion – apparently designed to avoid violating provisions against a former legislator taking a job funded with appropriated money within two years – Darrell Weaver of the narcotics bureau told Sen. Sykes he was not happy about the diversion but, as Eastride put it, “what was he supposed to do; Terrill was his appropriations chairman.” Weaver's legal counsel, Susan Rogers, said the pair were never informed the funds were intended for the “Transition Coordinator” post, but had the impression it was to fund additional pathologists in the M.E.'s office.
The M.E.'s office objects
At the M.E.'s office -- an agency wracked with resignations and turmoil over the past few years -- those running the agency for much of 2009-10 were uneasy as Rep. Terrill sought to implement his plans.
In 2009, Senator Leftwich had told administrator Tom Jordan she wanted his job, but was not qualified due to her lack of a college degree. In spring 2010, Leftwich expressed displeasure with staff at the M.E.'s office over its consideration of a friend for an interim, rather than permanent, job. Terrill, meanwhile, raised the “transition coordinator” position with Jordan. In May, Leftwich explicitly broached the subject.
On May 13, Terill sought an “urgent” meeting with Jordan and Cherokee Ballard, public information officer at the office. According to Eastridge, during a May 17 meeting, Terrill “told them the subject matter he was discussing was 'dead man's talk.'” Terrill said, “he thought Leftwich would be the obvious choice for the Transition Coordinator position. ...” He asked, “Can you think of a better choice?” He asked the pair what their salaries were. Ballard makes $70,000 a year; Jordan made $90,000. He said, pointing at Jordan: “She won't make as much as you, it will be around 80,000 [dollars a year].” Terrill then said he was creating a source of non-appropriated funds to pay for the post.
Leaving the Capitol, Jordan and Ballard agreed Terrill was pressuring them to hire Leftwich. They both felt something “dirty” was happening. Leftwich called Jordan frequently to say she was looking forward to working with him and, “We will make a great team.” At the agency, Jordan announced his resignation on May 24 and “informed the ME's Office employees that he was directed by the Board not to hire or fire anyone.”
Things fall apart
At session's end, word that Leftwich was not seeking reelection surged around the Capitol dome. On May 28, Terrill approached Ballard, asking to have lunch with her and Jordan. Ballard told Terrill that Jordan was leaving the agency. Eastridge reports, “Terrill responded by telling Ballard that Jordan [was] 'still on the books' and needs to 'do one more thing' for him” before officially leaving. “Ballard stated Terrill repeated that he needed Jordan to do this 'one more thing' three separate times.”
Ballard felt pressured and intimated, according to Eastridge. Terrill said he could help Ballard if she was interested in the administrative position. He suggested Leftwich and Ballard would make a good team.
On June 2, Jordan met Leftwich and Terrill at the Warren Theatre diner in Moore. Jordan says Terrill “pressured” him to hire Leftwich. He said he had no authority to do so, and that in any case S.B. 738 had not been signed into law. Terrill said the bill was a “legislative mandate,” and pressed Jordan to hire Leftwich immediately. Terrill made “an apparent call” to a House lawyer, saying the attorney told him the appointment could be made. Jordan refused, saying he would not do anything until he had conferred with the office of the attorney general.
Jordan called Weaver at the narcotics bureau to say Terrill's deal “stinks” and that he would “not be part of it.” Weaver related that Terrill had claimed he could do whatever he wanted with money from the Wire Transfer bill.
On June 4, Assistant Attorney General Sandra Balzer said in an opinion letter that appointment of Leftwich was prohibited by the state Constitution. Eastridge summarized the gist as: “When a fee is diverted by the [Legislature] to another agency, its status changes to an appropriation.”
At the affidavit's end, Eastridge reported a widely-held view about the legislative process and the frantic final weeks of session, especially the last days. In a remark widely repeated, Eastridge recounts that one lobbyist said that “special” language is inserted late in the session so the texts will not be thoroughly vetted. This source said, “We do it every session, that's just the way it is. You will destroy our way of life at the Capitol if the public learns of what it is really like in the last week.”
The list of witnesses to the alleged crimes, provided in the affidavit of probable cause, includes Chad Alexander, Cherokee Ballard, Chris Benge, Mike Christian, Glenn Coffee, Marian Cooksey, Mike Johnson, Clark Jolley, David Myers, Leslie Osborn, Anastasia Pittman and Anthony Sykes.
Two bills, two charges, two views
Terrill's vision of a plum post for Leftwich collapsed when Governor Brad Henry – advised of the alleged scheme linking Leftwich's departure from the Senate with Terrill's plans -- vetoed S.B. 738 and H.B. 2486, saying the measures were fatally flawed and not in the best interest of the state.
In a statement at the time of his veto (Sunday, June 6), Gov. Henry said, “I do not know if the allegations are true or where the investigation will ultimately lead, but I do know the bills in question are not in the best interest of the state of Oklahoma. Investigation or not, there is no reason to create and fund the type of new position outlined in this legislation.”
Henry specifically identified the “transition” post as the source of his concern: “S.B. 738 contained many important reforms to help get the medical examiner’s office back on track, but buried within the legislation was a highly-paid, new position that is entirely unnecessary in the operation of the agency. Because of that fatal flaw, I had no choice but to veto the bill.”
On Dec. 22, Stephen Jones, now serving as Terrill's attorney, assailed Prater's charges against Terrill and Leftwich as “unwarranted” and a violation of separation of power. He called the affidavit of probable cause “a report based on hearsy and speculation with self-serving statements and innuendo” and “a political payback” against legislators willing to take controversial positions.
He said Terrill would fight the charges, “not only for himself, but for the constitutional dignity of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.” Jones asserted that in light of “the deplorable, scandalous conduct of the employees of the Office of chief Medical Examiner, the appointment of Debbe Leftwich would have been a breath of fresh air.” He said that in the indictments “persons with long knives from the shadows have struck.”
Incoming Speaker of the House Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican who has faced searing attacks from Terrill in recent weeks, for what the latter viewed as insufficient conservative ardor, has reaffirmed his pledge, made earlier this winter, to make the legislative process more transparent and open, and to avoid the last-minute maneuvers that sometimes hide the full impact of legislation.