HERE'S hoping the bribery conviction of former state Rep. Randy Terrill grabs Oklahoma lawmakers' attention. Ideally, it should prompt them to embrace greater transparency and higher ethical standards. It's time to permanently slam the door on the practices and attitudes that facilitated Terrill's scheme.
On the transparency issue, lawmakers have adopted some praiseworthy reforms, but the system still has flaws.
When the House and Senate pass conflicting versions of the same bill, the legislation is sent to a joint conference committee. For years, those committees rarely held public meetings and did not cast public votes. The language of bills was often kept secret until reaching the floor of either chamber.
Terrill exploited this secretive process and attempted to create an $80,000 job to bribe a state senator. He quietly slipped the job provision into a bill during the Legislature's final days of session, when the opportunity for public scrutiny was minimized.
After Terrill's indictment, the House began requiring public conference committee meetings with public votes, public notification of meeting times and locations, and advance public release of proposed legislation. Today both the House and Senate have a waiting period before bills can receive a floor vote.
But under current House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, the House has partially backed away from those reforms. This year, Shannon created at least four conference committees that operated in secret, duplicating the process exploited by Terrill. One of those committees advanced last-minute legislation by House Speaker Pro Tem Mike Jackson, R-Enid, to effectively cut taxes on certain tobacco products.
Needless to say, that didn't pass the smell test.
Shannon and House lawmakers should commit to full transparency. At the same time, the Oklahoma Senate should fully adopt the House's open conference committee process. There's no reason to preserve any part of a closed-door system that facilitated a bribery scheme.
In addition to greater transparency, lawmakers should adopt serious ethical guidelines that demonstrate commitment to high standards of behavior in public office. To understand how low the bar is set today, one only has to review how legislators handled Terrill's bribery case.
Following Terrill's indictment, House leadership established a special investigative committee to review the case and recommend action, including Terrill's possible expulsion. The committee's final report didn't whitewash Terrill's actions. It did something worse: It tacitly condoned them — so long as Terrill avoided criminal prosecution.
After hearing from many of the same witnesses involved in the recent trial, the report declared the committee did “not discount any of the statements” presented and “assumes they are true.” The report noted Terrill did not “choose to provide the Committee with evidence.” But the group concluded, “Based on the available evidence, even assuming the truth of the factual allegations, no Member of the Committee would vote to recommend expulsion of Rep. Terrill from the Oklahoma House of Representatives unless he is convicted in a court of law of the charges against him.”
Suggesting Terrill be expelled after prosecution was not a meaningful concession. Since 1910, state law has mandated that any lawmaker convicted of a major crime forfeit his office.
The investigative committee clearly believed the testimony of people alleging Terrill attempted to bribe a state senator. It specifically noted Terrill made no effort to refute those charges, yet the group still shrugged off the bribery allegations. Their conclusion, in plain English, was this: Bribery is acceptable in the Oklahoma Legislature. Just don't get convicted.
You can't set the ethics bar much lower.
Not only did the committee oppose Terrill's expulsion, it even opposed reprimanding Terrill, a procedural action with no legal consequence. The committee report noted Terrill had previously been reprimanded by the House after he was accused of making verbal threats of physical violence against then-House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee. To reprimand Terrill again, the committee report proclaimed, “would be unnecessarily duplicative.” Under that logic, engaging in disorderly conduct was deemed more deserving of public rebuke than a flagrant abuse of power like bribery.
The committee did make two worthwhile recommendations. One was to ensure conference committee transparency. The other was to establish an ethics committee that would set permanent rules for handling similar investigations in the future.
But when a resulting ethics proposal was brought before the House, lawmakers voted 58-36 to set it aside. Notably, the motion to table the ethics code was made by Rep. Fred Jordan, R-Jenks. Jordan co-chaired the special investigative committee that had endorsed the ethics standard in the first place. Basically, Jordan helped prevent Terrill's expulsion and then helped block implementation of standards that might deter others from emulating Terrill.
Jordan now serves as House majority leader.
The temptation among state lawmakers will be to shrug off the Terrill case as an aberration. That would be a mistake. To continue embracing the secretive practices and low ethical standards that allowed Terrill to nearly get away with a felony crime would suggest lawmakers place little priority on honest government.
That several members of House leadership have been active in efforts to reduce public scrutiny of legislative action and minimize any potential non-court penalty for malfeasance is especially concerning.
If Oklahoma lawmakers don't embrace legislative transparency and an ethical standard higher than “don't get convicted of a crime,” they should consider the message they'll send to Oklahoma voters — that Randy Terrill may not be an exception to the rule after all.