Officials at a power plant company deny bribing a state senator even though they stopped paying him $5,000 a month for “professional services” only when he was leaving the Legislature.
“Absolutely not,” one official, Bart Ford, told jurors Wednesday at a political corruption trial when asked whether the company is in the business of bribing people.
“We're well respected, and we think of ourselves as having high ethical standards,” Ford testified.
The energy company, Tenaska Inc., paid Mike Morgan $250,000 between December 2004 and December 2008. Morgan, a Democrat, was leader of the state Senate for most of that time.
Prosecutors at Morgan's trial have told jurors the payments were bribes for political influence. Morgan, an attorney, contends the payments were for legitimate legal services.
No one from Tenaska has been charged out of the bribery investigation.
The company operates one power plant in Oklahoma and others across the country. It had almost $10 billion in gross operating revenues in 2010.
The company also has paid state Sen. Richard Lerblance, D-Hartshorne, and a former Alabama state senator who recently died, according to testimony Wednesday. Lerblance, an attorney, is not facing charges.
Tenaska hired Morgan in 2004 while it was planning to build a coal-fired power plant in northeast Oklahoma with the Grand River Dam Authority, according to testimony.
Jurors learned Wednesday Morgan was consulted about and voted for a 2005 Senate bill that exempted GRDA from competitive bidding requirements for more than a year. Prosecutors contend Morgan pushed the bill to lower Tenaska's costs for the proposed plant.
The bill became law but the plant was never built.
The company later considered building a power plant near Sallisaw but never did.
Ford, a vice president for development for Tenaska, testified Tuesday he remembers being impressed with Morgan after a meeting in September 2005 at Tenaska offices in Arlington, Texas. He said he considers Morgan's substantive input at the meeting to be legal work.
Ford explained in further testimony Wednesday that he had a bit of a prejudice against lawyers who are politicians.
“I had misjudged and assumed he would not be a contributor and I was wrong about that,” Ford testified.
Another company official, Brad Cox, testified Wednesday, “There was no bribe.”
However, Cox also said he knew of no legal work Morgan did for Tenaska. He specifically testified Morgan never responded in 2005 to the company's request for legal research on five issues.
About the case
The company stopped using Morgan at the end of 2008. In a proposed termination letter, the company thanked Morgan “for all your legal assistance over the past several years with our efforts to expand.”
Jurors Wednesday saw an internal email from a company official who asked two colleagues to review the termination letter before it was sent to Morgan. The official wrote, “No fair quibbling with the ‘thank you for all your legal assistance' language.”
Morgan also is accused of taking $141,666 in bribes from an Oklahoma landfill development company and $12,000 in bribes from an Edmond assisted-living business.
On trial in federal court in Oklahoma City with Morgan are a longtime lobbyist, Andy Skeith, and a prominent attorney, Martin Stringer. They are accused of conspiring with Morgan on behalf of Tenaska and the landfill company.
Morgan, 57, of Stillwater, Stringer, 71, of Oklahoma City, and Skeith, 53, of Edmond, were indicted in March. All three have pleaded not guilty.
Morgan was Senate president pro tem or co-president pro tem from March 2005 until November 2008, according to the indictment.