ANY perception that white-collar crime is difficult to prosecute is perhaps fed by the latest example of corruption involving an Oklahoma public official. The perception doesn't necessarily mirror reality.
Former state Senate President Mike Morgan was convicted this month on only one count of the 62 his jury considered in a case involving the alleged sale of influence. (Prosecutors had dropped another count during trial.) Two co-defendants walked on all the counts they faced. Federal prosecutors say they won't seek another trial for the counts on which Morgan's jurors were deadlocked.
It's a good call, considering the expense the government has gone to already. Morgan, D-Stillwater, faces prison time. He'll join countless Oklahoma public officials and other white-collar criminals over the years. These include several in the notorious Penn Square Bank fraud case from 1982, the massive county commissioner scandal of the early 1980s and charges involving two Democratic governors.
More recent cases include a state insurance commissioner, the state auditor and inspector, county officials and legislators. Is this a corrupt state or what?
No, not especially. Indictments alleging corruption by public officials are common throughout the land. A defendant's socio-economic status should have no bearing on whether charges are pursued. But wealthier defendants have the advantage of engaging the best defense attorneys. This is perhaps another reason for the perception that white-collar crime is difficult to prosecute.
Cases involving financial schemes or fraud can be incredibly complex. Trials may take weeks. Jurors are worn down by the testimony and the rupture of their routine lives while they hear a case to conclusion.
In December, the U.S. Justice Department's monthly national report showed 643 new white-collar crime convictions, up 5.1 percent from the previous month. More tellingly, the figure was up by more than 20 percent from five years earlier. We don't know if this shows that more white-collar crimes are being committed or more of them are being vigorously prosecuted. But we can conclude that prosecutors at the federal level, where most white-collar cases are tried, take these cases quite seriously.
Morgan was a popular politician with a winning personality, the kind that might discomfit a juror asked to convict a defendant of a crime that means prison time. His jury heard the evidence covering 62 counts, acquitted him on 33 and couldn't reach a decision on 28 others. Were it not for a single count, Morgan would be a free man today. So along with applauding prosecutors in this case, we salute the jury.
We wish this were the end of political corruption trials in Oklahoma, but that won't be the case. We take some comfort in the fact that when it comes to high-profile white-collar cases, the pinnacle (so far) was reached in the 1980s.
The decade began with convictions or guilty pleas by nearly 250 county commissioners and suppliers. It continued with the Penn Square Bank debacle and cases involving county sheriffs, lawmakers and high-ranking college officials. As The Oklahoman's Randy Ellis put it in a retrospective of the era, “Oklahomans learned a tough lesson in the 1980s: Good ol' boys don't always wear white hats.”
Dozens of them did exchange their white collars for prison attire.