DENVER — An appellate judge raised questions Tuesday about whether former Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector Jeff McMahan may have been wrongfully convicted in a corruption case. "An erroneous jury instruction could have led the jury to convict him,” Judge Michael Murphy of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said during attorneys’ arguments about whether to throw out McMahan’s convictions. McMahan, 50, was convicted in 2008 of two counts of interstate travel to facilitate bribery and one count of conspiracy to deprive citizens of Oklahoma of their right to honest public service. McMahan is serving a prison sentence of eight years and one month. Prosecutors alleged he accepted illegal campaign contributions, trips and expensive jewelry from southeastern Oklahoma businessman Steve Phipps during trips to New Orleans.
Some evidence barredMcMahan’s attorney, Carolyn Merritt of Oklahoma City, argued that his convictions are invalid because the trial judge misinformed jurors about what evidence was needed to find McMahan guilty. The attorney said, for example, the judge should have told jurors that in order to find McMahan guilty, they had to conclude that he intended to give favors to Phipps in return for gifts from Phipps. Merritt also contends the judge erred in excluding evidence about McMahan’s character that was favorable to him.
Attorney paid by taxpayersFederal prosecutor Ryan Roberts told the three appellate judges assigned to the case the instructions U.S. District Judge James Payne gave jurors "were consistent with what I’ve always seen in the 10th Circuit.” Judge Michael Murphy of the Denver-based appeals court several times questioned whether Payne’s instructions improperly informed jurors. Murphy told Roberts that he had not answered his questions about Payne’s instructions and that Roberts’ responses supported McMahan’s position. Roberts said Payne "gave the jury all they needed to know to make an informed and intelligent decision.” Outside the courtroom after the 30 minutes of arguments, Merritt said, "From the questions of the court, it is clear that the court is concerned about instructions given in this case.” She is appointed by the court to represent McMahan at taxpayer expense. As is typical, the judges gave no indication when they will rule on the appeal. Phipps admitted during the trial that he illegally provided more than $100,000 to McMahan’s 2002 election campaign and paid for trips and jewelry for him and his wife, Lori. Phipps owned abstracting companies regulated by the auditor. Lori McMahan, 45, was convicted of the same crimes as her husband and is serving a sentence of six years and six months.