A witness in a political corruption investigation recalls state Rep. Randy Terrill on May 17 pushed for Sen. Debbe Leftwich to be hired at the medical examiner's office and warned the discussion was "dead man's talk.”
Terrill, R-Moore, also specified how much Leftwich would be paid in the new job — $80,000 a year, the witness recalled.
"I didn't know if this would be right or wrong,” the witness, Cherokee Ballard, told The Oklahoman. "I didn't feel right.”
Ballard is the executive administrator, spokeswoman and legislative liaison for the medical examiner's office. She confirmed she met Friday with Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater and told him about the meeting. The prosecutor is directing a grand jury investigation into why the job — transition coordinator — was created.
Prater is investigating whether Terrill conspired to get the job for Leftwich, D-Okahoma City, so she would not run for re-election and so Rep. Mike Christian, R-Oklahoma City, could seek her seat. The three lawmakers have denied wrongdoing.
The state constitution prohibits a legislator from working for a state agency within two years of leaving office unless the salary comes from private or federal funds.
Prosecutors suspect legislators mistakenly believed they could get around the prohibition by paying for the new position with a special narcotics bureau fund made up of state fees on cash wire transfers at places such as Western Union. The governor vetoed legislation creating the new job after the investigation was announced.
Ballard, a former Oklahoma City television news anchor, said the meeting May 17 was at Terrill's office at the state Capitol and lasted 20 to 30 minutes. She said she was there with Tom Jordan, the chief administrative officer of the medical examiner's office.
She said Terrill used the words "dead man's talk” toward the beginning of the meeting.
"It was suggested that the senator would be a good person for that job and perhaps that she was interested,” Ballard said of transition coordinator.
She said her impression was Terrill was pushing Jordan to hire Leftwich, who worked at the medical examiner's office before becoming a senator. The $80,000-a-year job was to oversee the move of the medical examiner's main office from Oklahoma City to Edmond. The job was to have lasted no more than three years.
After the meeting, "we were both just kind of like, 'What do we do? How do we handle this?' We didn't decide anything at that point,” Ballard said.
Jordan confirmed Friday that he and Ballard met with Terrill on May 17 at the Capitol. He also confirmed he met at their request with Terrill and Leftwich on June 2 at a location in Moore.
Asked if wrongdoing had occurred, Jordan said attorneys will have to decide. Jordan told The Oklahoman, "That's not a decision for me to make. I just know there were certain things I wasn't going to do. Were there questionable things? Sure.”
He said he would not discuss specifically what was said at the meetings because Prater has told him he will be a grand jury witness. He also would not say specifically if he was asked to hire Leftwich. "I'm not going there. That's grand jury stuff,” he told The Oklahoman.
Jordan is a former deputy director of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. He went to work in December as the top administrator for the medical examiner's office. He announced his retirement May 24 and was using up his leave time when he met with Terrill and Leftwich on June 2.
"I was leaving the agency. It wouldn't have been appropriate for me to make an appointment anyway,” he said Friday.
The meeting June 2 was after legislators passed the changes to the medical examiner's office, including the creation of the transition coordinator. The meeting also was after Leftwich announced she was leaving the Senate and Christian announced he would run for her seat.
Jordan also confirmed Friday that — after the June 2 meeting — he made a call to an assistant attorney general, Sandra Balzer. The assistant attorney general provides legal advice to the medical examiner's board.
In a memo June 4, Balzer responding to Jordan's questions, writing, "at issue” was "whether a current legislator whose term expires in 2010 would be eligible to fill the position” of transition coordinator. The assistant attorney general concluded the legislator could not take the job even if the salary came from the wire transfer fund. Balzer did not name the legislator in the memo.
Leftwich has hired an attorney, Robert McCampbell. The attorney Friday declined to discuss the June 2 meeting. He repeated an earlier statement, saying, "Sen. Leftwich has acted properly in all respects.”
Leftwich on June 4 specifically denied ever asking Jordan for the transition coordinator job. "No, no, heavens no,” she told The Oklahoman.
Terrill could not be reached for comment. Christian abandoned his Senate campaign because of the probe and is running for re-election to the House instead.
Where numbers came from
Here's how witness Cherokee Ballard said Rep. Randy Terrill came up with how much Sen. Debbe Leftwich would be paid as transition coordinator for the medical examiner's office:
Terrill turned to Ballard, who is an administrator and spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office. Terrill asked, "What's your salary?”
She replied, "70,” short for $70,000.
Terrill responded, "Well … she'll be making more than you.”
Terrill then turned to Tom Jordan, the chief administrative officer of the medical examiner's office. He asked Jordan how much Jordan was making.
Jordan responded, "90.”
Terrill then said, "Well, it will be somewhere in between, like 80.”