CapitolBeatOK’s listing of top Oklahoma news stories (Part II): Health Department Scandal ends with a whimper, death penalty’s legal standing, Big Tribe Power, The OK’s decline, and liquor reforms

Oklahoma City – Part I of the series presenting CapitolBeatOK’s list of Oklahoma’s top news stories for policy and government featured five stories.

In first place: the collapse of conservative governance under Mary Fallin, followed by the maintenance of Republican power in the November election, voter approval of medical marijuana, the robust recovery of the state economy and consequent growth in government tax revenues, and teacher strikes in the midst of vexing educational performance. 

Read Part I here:

Part II begins below. 

Continuing with more of CapitolBeatOK’s analysis of the top stories of 2018: 
Sixth place in this analysis goes to the carry-forward into 2018 of the Health Department budget and spending scandals, the top ranked story for state government in 2017.

As noted in our 2017 compilation of top stories: 
“As personnel costs and salaries increased from 2011 to 2016, top agency staffers were robbing Peter to pay Paul. Even as low energy prices put recurring pressure on state finances — preventing the big budget growth of earlier years — millions of dollars were mis-allocated at the agency.
“The most egregious decisions diverted money intended to benefit Oklahomans suffering from HIV and full-blown AIDS to cover recurring expenses. The money in question flowed from federal programs, meaning the explicit avoidance of guidelines connected to the federal dollars is a serious, and possibly criminal, matter.” (

In the end, however, in legal terms little happened to anyone closely connected to the scandal. After a months-long investigation, the state Attorney General’s office issued a final multi-county grand jury report. That document read like a draft in preparation for indictments – yet no indictments were actually forthcoming. (

Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones, in a report issued at the same time (not long after the spring legislative session ended), decried “numerous issues” and unorthodox accounting at the agency. (

Both analyses – that of Jones and the multi-country grand jury guided by the A.G.’s office – concluded enough money was actually available to the Health Department’s required work. However, that the money was hidden or unavailable for use. 

That’s not to say the agency’s troubles are over. An agency lawyer involved in development of medical marijuana rules (see part I in this series, emerged as deeply conflicted over the issue. She sent ostensibly threatening letters to herself (crafted as if they were coming from marijuana advocates) and faced criminal proceedings ( 

Continued erosion for Capital Punishment

Continued erosion in the legal standing of the death penalty – also listed as one of The City Sentinel’s top stories in Oklahoma City/County ( – is CapitolBeatOK’s seventh top statewide news story for 2018
In her insightful year-end story for The Tulsa World, reporter Samantha Vicent outlined reasons Oklahoma ended a fourth year without an execution. As she chronicled recent history, “Eight states carried out a combined 25 executions in 2018, of which Texas contributed 13, in the fourth consecutive year with fewer than 30 people put to death nationwide. Oklahoma, once a regular fixture at the top of lists for numbers of executions, only imposed one new death sentence this year, with no county in the United States handing down more than two.” (

Eighteen inmates remain on Oklahoma’s death row, including two whose guilt in the underlying crimes for which they were sentenced is uncertain. 
Julius Darius Jones and Richard Glossip have drawn more and more international attention as the state’s legal turmoil over capital cases continues. CapitolBeatOK and its news partner, The City Sentinel, have published dozens of articles over the four years since the execution moratorium began, detailing the reasons for doubts about the guilt of Jones and Glossip. Some of the stories have focused on other cases, and drew further attention to problems with the entire system of capital punishment in modern America.
A few weeks ago, the local District Attorney touted DNA results finding Jones’ DNA on a bandana possibly linked to the 1999 murder of which he was convicted, but under-reported was the presence of DNA residue from others. (

As the broader debate continues, defense attorneys and other voices, including this news website and The City Sentinel newspaper, continue to press “Justice for Julius.”  

Tribal Power plays, weakening impact for The Oklahoman, and liquor law reforms

The eighth top news story for 2018 is the continued growth in political, economic and other forms of power for the state’s five largest Indian nations, known historically as the Five Civilized Tribes. The Creek Nation is arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court for reservation status for a large portion of northeast Oklahoma, including the city of Tulsa. It has made its legal arguments with the support of many important Oklahoma political figures from both major parties.
The underlying legal issue, a murder case, sometimes gets short shrift in analysis because of the implications for Oklahoma. Many, including this writer, contend victory for the Creek Nation would create one set of laws, procedures and policies for the eastern part of the state, and a second for the rest (including Oklahoma City).
The legal arguments actually presented by the Creeks and by the state government (the latter of which did not include all possible arguments) were deftly summarized in reporter Justin Wingerter’s story in the December 31 print edition (behind the paywall for online readers). The full set of legal contentions is not yet known, as additional briefs are due by January 11.

While the state of Oklahoma in this matter formally opposed arguments for the Creek legal position, it has not opposed other instances of big tribe expansiveness and controversial power plays aimed at either the state or at smaller tribal nations.

The most notable of the latter is the “David vs. Goliath” fight between the Comanche Nation, centered in southwest Oklahoma, and the richest of the five large Oklahoma tribes, the Chickasaw
The Comanche had planned for years to build a casino of their own along the Red River, to capture some of the lucrative state and regional (drawing from Texas) gaming market. But in wake of a secretive Bureau of Indian Affairs administrative decision favoring the Chickasaw, the big tribe moved quickly to break ground at that site for yet-another Chickasaw casino.
That led to litigation, with the Chickasaw prevailing at the trial level and at the federal appeals court in Denver in recent weeks. (

The best national reporting in the Comanche-Chickasaw conflict has come from carefully crafted and well-sourced stories by David Rogers for ( 
Now, the Comanche have asked for the U.S. Supreme Court to look at the issue. ( 
To understate the matter, both the Creek reservation case and the Chickasaw casino controversy bear watching.

The decline of The Oklahoman, still the state’s largest newspaper, is the ninth top news story of the year. The newspaper had more than 300,000 paid Sunday subscribers for the print edition in the early 1990s, during the heyday of the late E.L. Gaylord. His family sold the newspaper to a Colorado billionaire several years ago. For awhile it seemed erosion of the newspaper’s position might slow, although implementation of an end to long distance (but within the state) delivery and sales hinted at a weak long-term.

Recently, that owner sold the paper to a chain system. The newly-designated publisher has announced an end to rack sales and effective January 1 ended delivery of the print product to several thousand more rural or far-suburban routes. The new publisher gave a circulation figure a bit over 92,000, but announced plans that will erode that figure. 
The newspaper’s leadership says it will continue decades-old efforts to make the online products affiliated with profitable. 

The newspaper staff is greatly reduced since the Gaylord years, putting The Oklahoman squarely in the middle of the industry-wide decline. Along the way, a lot of respected, experienced and sagacious journalists have lost their jobs at the state’s most impactful news organization.
Once upon a time The Oklahoman had a capable and professional cadre of three to four (depending on the year) reporters at the state capitol. (The Tulsa World had another two or three, depending on the year.)
That era of journalistic competition worked in the public interest, regularly producing first-rate news stories that kept voters and citizens informed on important issues. 
As seasoned veterans left the Capitol press room, retiring or laid off, they were in recent years not replaced. The days of strong staffing in coverage of state government are long gone, although the reporters who still monitor state government are capable and serious.
The Oklahoman, both in news coverage and in editorial content, remains important to our state, but the institution’s future is not bright. And the same can be said of other news organizations. 

Putting this reality in a broader perspective, the traditional “watchdog” functions of major news-gathering organizations are at risk nationwide. Those organizations get financially weaker (especially in mid-size markets) with every passing year. Those left behind seem less tied to laudable professional standards, whether in reporting or commentary, than those which prevailed in past years. 
In these circumstances, governments – local, state and national – have grown more willing to withhold information journalists could usually or often access before 2009. The public’s right or ability to find and study important information is weakened, a process that is accelerating. 

While The Oklahoman’s travails are not unique, they are troubling for the future of news-gathering hereabouts, particularly in an era when local, state and national politicians of all stripes characterize as “fake news” reports or analyses that make them uncomfortable or with which they disagree. In both radio and television news operations, the days of “rip-and-read” rewrites of newspaper stories were a source of humor – but at least such reports were based on matters that were sourced and verified. Now, even the strongest television and radio news teams face their own versions of shrinking news holes and limited resources.   

This matter is state news of a different sort, and it cannot be sugar-coated. It is not clear there are any entities able to fill, here in Oklahoma, the news-gathering gap which every day becomes a more significant concern all across the country. 

CapitolBeatOK’s choice as the tenth top policy/government story is reform of state liquor laws, in the historic series of events triggered by the work of state Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City.
With the arrival of wine in grocery stores, consumer convenience and lower prices are the norm. 
But many traditional liquor stores with records of community involvement closed before they experienced the reduced market share that has characterized such changes in other states.
In the long run, turning to a freer market is positive, but that same market creates volatility and uncertainty for many. 
Oklahoma has come a long way since 1959, when Oklahoma’s first steps away from Prohibition gained approval.

The past year for state government was so eventful, and so consequential, that an addendum to the foregoing report has been prepared. The remaining choices will be featured in CapitolBeatOK’s third installment for 2018, wrapping up this presentation of top statewide news stories.