Former state Sen. Gene Stipe is entitled to his full pension as a state legislator because the federal crimes to which he pleaded guilty were not a violation of his oath of office, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled Tuesday. In its ruling, the high court upheld an Oklahoma County judge's decision that Stipe's state pension should not be reduced because of his guilty pleas. With 54 years of legislative service as a House and Senate member, Stipe, 81, is eligible for a $7,042 monthly pension. The court also upheld a district court ruling that he be paid the cumulative amount of his pension benefits that he should have received since his 2003 retirement; that amount wasn't immediately clear Tuesday. In 2003, Stipe resigned from the state Senate and pleaded guilty to federal violations involving the 1998 congressional campaign of Democrat Walt Roberts, Stipe's protege. Chief Justice James Winchester was the only dissenter in the Supreme Court's 7-1 decision Tuesday. "Although abiding by federal campaign laws might not have been explicitly stated in the Senator's oath of office, I would assert that tampering with an election strikes at the very heart of ‘support, obey and defend the Constitution,'” Winchester said.
Question of oathsThe Supreme Court said the oath of office requires an officeholder to swear to support, obey and defend the constitutions of the United States and the state of Oklahoma. The officeholder swears he will not knowingly receive, directly or indirectly, any money or other valuable thing for performance or nonperformance of any act and swears to faithfully discharge his duties to the best of his ability. "It is immediately apparent that the crimes to which Stipe pled guilty in district court for the District of Columbia do not facially constitute a violation of Stipe's oath of office,” the Supreme Court said. "The (federal) plea agreement even contains a provision that the parties agree that the defendant's conduct, as set forth in the Factual Basis for Plea and Information, did not relate to or arise from his duties as a public official or state senator from Oklahoma.” One major problem arose with the retirement system's interpretation of the importance of the loyalty oath — a oath separate from the oath of office. Loyalty oaths are required by state law, but are not required by the state constitution. The retirement system's board erroneously determined that the loyalty oath was one of Stipe's oaths of office within the meaning of the law on forfeiting a pension, the court said. In 1993 the Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional oath was Oklahoma's sole official oath for a public officer, the opinion said. The Legislature changed the law to make the loyalty oath "cumulative” to the oath of office, but that happened on Nov. 1, 2004, after the events in Stipe's case took place, court justices said.
Three justices sit this one outNot all of the judges took part in the decision. Justice Rudolph Hargrave wrote the opinion. Those concurring with him were Justices Marian Opala, Joseph Watt, Tom Colbert, John Reif, and retired justices Robert Lavender and Hardy Summers. Winchester dissented. Retired justices can be asked to sit in on cases when active justices sit out. In this case, three current justices did not participate. Justice James Edmondson disqualified himself, and Justices Yvonne Kauger and Steven Taylor recused. Taylor, a former district judge in McAlester, recused in November, saying he had had exposure to extensive local media coverage, considerable hometown comments and local government deliberation and action concerning Stipe's federal felony convictions, most of which are outside the record of the pension case. He said it would be difficult for him to be a fair and impartial judge of the issues presented. Edmondson and Kauger offered no explanation in Tuesday's opinion on why they recused.
The former state senator is eligible for his full pension as a legislator despite pleading guilty to federal charges, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled.
Case backgroundAfter former state Sen. Gene Stipe pleaded guilty, the general counsel for the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System sent him a letter that the office determined that all his retirement benefits not vested on Sept. 8, 1981, were forfeited. The 1981 date is when the state law was enacted to require forfeiture of pension benefits of state officials who pleaded guilty to certain crimes. Stipe appealed. A hearing examiner ruled in 2004 that Stipe was entitled only to $1,572 a month, which represented his pension earnings before Sept. 8, 1981. Stipe, a McAlester Democrat, then took his case to the state retirement system's board, which agreed with the hearing examiner. The dispute then moved to Oklahoma County District Court, where District Judge Barbara Swinton reversed the board's decision and ordered Stipe's full pension reinstated. The federal charges to which Stipe pleaded guilty were: conspiracy to violate the Federal Election Campaign Act, a misdemeanor; conspiracy to obstruct a Federal Election Commission investigation, a felony; and perjury, a felony.