Randy Terrill conviction should promote more transparency, higher ethical standards

The Oklahoman Editorial Published: November 6, 2013
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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.

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