It’s time Oklahomans pay attention to how money has polluted the state’s political systems.
What many Oklahomans, no matter their political affiliation, may well conclude after taking a close look at the current situation is this: Politicians often abuse the contemporary campaign-funding system, and only rich people and their organizations have influence and power within the present political milieu.
Brent Rinehart, the District 2 Oklahoma County commissioner, recently was charged, along with his former campaign manager, Tim Pope, and three donors, in an alleged scheme to circumvent the state’s $5,000 campaign contribution limit. The donors allegedly gave extra money to a political action committee operated by Pope, who then used it directly in Rinehart’s 2004 campaign, according to the charges filed by Attorney General Drew Edmondson.
Rinehart, a Republican, has said the charges are politically motivated, according to news reports. Edmondson is a Democrat. But that’s too easy. These are serious charges that demand scrutiny by anyone who cares about this state.
Oklahoma has a long history of political corruption. Here are just a few examples:
Former Oklahoma Gov. David Hall, a Democrat, was convicted of racketeering and extortion in 1975 for steering Oklahoma employee retirement funds to a Dallas businessman. He served 19 months in a federal prison. The state’s county commissioner scandal in the Eighties still ranks as one of the worst public corruption cases in the nation. More than 200 people, most of them county commissioners, were convicted for taking kickbacks from suppliers. Former Gov. David Walters, a Democrat, pleaded guilty to a 1993 misdemeanor campaign finance charge during his tenure in office. Like Rinehart, he initially faced felony charges. Just recently, former state Sen. Gene Stipe and a partner, Steve Phipps, have been implicated in a straw-donor scheme that allegedly funneled illegal campaign money to several candidates through the years, according to news reports. Those who allegedly received campaign money include Gov. Brad Henry, U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, State Auditor and Inspector Jeff McMahan and former state Rep. Mike Mass. Henry and Boren have said they had no idea they received the money.
Does history doom Oklahoma to more political corruption? Is corruption something Americans must accept about the political process?
No and no, but people need to start paying attention. As boring as campaign-financing laws can seem, more Oklahomans need to immerse themselves in the minutiae of these laws and the rigorous examination of how campaign contributions define a candidate’s actions in office. Unfortunately, most local mainstream media outlets have abdicated their responsibility for thoroughly informing the public about this significant aspect of our culture.
But many government records are now online, and alternative media and local blogs and sites try to keep up with major campaign-contribution trends and news. Oklahoma campaign contributions, for example, can be found here.
Anyone with a modicum of knowledge knows you have to donate the limit of $5,000 to candidates to have real influence in the political scene in this state. But who has the money to write $5,000 checks to candidates every couple of years? Well, rich people do, that’s who, and most don’t care if your kids have health insurance.
Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and author of the progressive blog Okie Funk: Notes From the Outback.