Oklahoma’s reputation as a state dominated by good ol’ boy politics and corruption lives on in the 21st century. This reputation is rooted in the state’s historical legacy of corruption.
This politics-as-usual in Oklahoma can seem highly entertaining as absurdist theater or deeply depressing depending on one’s particular cynicism level on any given day, but is not good for the state’s image, which impacts economic development.
State Auditor and Inspector Jeff McMahan and his wife, Lori, were recently indicted on nine counts of conspiracy, mail fraud and Travel Act violation. The indictment alleges McMahan, a Democrat, did favors in his job for businessman Steve Phipps, who gave him gifts and contributions, according to news reports. Phipps is a longtime associate of legendary former state Sen. Gene Stipe, who was recently convicted on political corruption charges.
McMahan’s story has all the elements of a spectacle. According to the indictment, Phipps allegedly gave Lori McMahan a $1,640 ring during a New Orleans trip he provided for the couple. For voters, the pertinent issue should be how this could echo the state’s political legacy.
Stipe helped countless ordinary Oklahomans through the years, some claim, but his 2003 conviction for funneling illegal campaign contributions to Walt Roberts proved to his detractors he was the corrupt, mythical kingpin of good ol’ boy politics they had always claimed. Is Stipe a Huey Long figure? Long, the late populist Louisiana governor and senator in the Twenties and Thirties, promoted wealth-sharing programs, but his enemies claimed his political power bordered on the dictatorial.
No one can realistically argue Stipe held as much political power in Oklahoma as Long did in Louisiana, but one can see similarities in style and controversy. Although the McMahans both pleaded not guilty, the allegations against them might be viewed through this particular historical narrative in the state.
Former State Insurance Commissioner Carroll Fisher’s 2006 conviction on embezzlement and perjury charges might fit into this good ol’ boy scheme, as well as the Oklahoma county commissioner scandal in the early Eighties. That remains the nation’s largest public corruption scandal in history. More than 200 commissioners were convicted for accepting kickbacks.
Then there is former Gov. David Hall, who was convicted on racketeering and extortion charges after he left office in 1975. Former Gov. David Walters pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge dealing with election irregularities in the Nineties.
All these politicians are Democrats, which creates a lasting public relations problem for the party.
But the state Republican Party has its own baggage. Oklahoma County Commissioner Brent Rinehart faces felony changes in connection with campaign contributions. While he was never charged with wrongdoing, former Gov. Frank Keating accepted $250,000 in cash from a man who later tried to get the state to use a particular drug on its prison inmates. State Rep. Lance Cargill, who recently resigned as House speaker, didn’t file tax returns for two years until warned by the Oklahoma Tax Commission, and he has been late on property taxes the last six years. Four other legislators, including three Democrats, were also warned for not filing taxes. Cargill still faces ethical questions about how some 2004 GOP campaign contributions were handled.
The political system is broken. Oklahomans need to reject the good ol’ boy politics of the past. Only voters can make this happen.
Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and author of the progressive blog Okie Funk: Notes From the Outback, http://www.okiefunk.com.