By Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – The trial and conviction of a former state legislator has been tough for a lot of people at the Capitol, but the end result is laudable.
Some background: Through a bill moving toward passage in late May 2010, state Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Oklahoma City, wanted to put state Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, in charge of a transition process at state Medical Examiner’s Office (http://www.capitolbeatok.com/reports/instead-of-running-m-e-transition-leftwich-faces-courthouse-surrender-and-terrill-too). In return, she would not seek a third and final term in the upper chamber.
Terrill had supported important and useful changes to the state ME’s office – but it was only in the frenzy of the closing days of session that he maneuvered to insert that language creating the job for Leftwich.
Terrill wanted the job to begin “on or before Jan. 1, 2011.”
Instead, on that date he and Leftwich were preparing to appear in court to face arraignment on bribery charges.
Over the past two weeks, witnesses in Oklahoma County Court testified the ME post was an explicit quid pro quo so Leftwich would leave the Senate seat open for a Republican (and Terrill ally) to run and win. Witnesses described Terrill’s orders to various players at the ME’s office and to fellow lawmakers to keep quiet about the details of the deal.
Jurors believed the D.A., and convicted Terrill late Tuesday. He faces a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Thus ends one man’s reign of Capitol coercion, which reached its peak in verbal assaults on former Speaker of the House Kris Steele, R-Shawnee.
A state House Investigative Committee met during the 2011 session, with authority “to recommend … whether the House should punish or expel” Terrill. The bi-partisan panel of eight members did not go that far, but issued a scathing unanimous report, saying:
“Each of the Members indicated deep concern about the allegations, perhaps best summed up by one Member’s statement that if the allegations are true, and that is what politics is all about, ‘I don’t want anything to do with politics.’ ”
The narrative continued: “The challenged conduct, assuming it happened, is egregiously reprehensible, and is certainly not something that occurs in the usual course of business at the Oklahoma House of Representatives. No Member of the Committee has previously witnessed or heard of similar conduct while serving in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. All Members of the Committee strongly disapprove of the challenged conduct.”
There is debate about whether Terrill’s style is “not something that occurs in the usual course of business” under the dome.
When formal charges were filed, Oklahoma County investigator Gary Eastridge, a 32-year veteran police officer, recounted a widely-held view about the legislative process and the frantic final weeks of every annual session.
Eastridge’s report for the DA’s office related that one lobbyist said that “special” language is regularly inserted into bills late in the session so the texts will not be thoroughly vetted: “We do it every session, that’s just the way it is. You will destroy our way of life at the Capitol if the public learns of what it is really like in the last week.”
The House did reprimand Terrill (albeit with one-third of members taking “constitutional privilege” and not voting) for an incident that occurred at the Capitol — but not on the floor of the chamber. Jurors at the county courthouse heard a little about that incident, details of which were first reported by CapitolBeatOK (http://www.capitolbeatok.com/reports/affidavit-asserts-terrill-cursed-speaker-threatened-to-break-his-other-leg).
In an affidavit recounting Terrill’s use of threats and profanity, an unnamed House staffer swore:
- “I was present in the office of Majority Floor Leader Dan Sullivan on the morning of March 10, 2011.
- “Representative Randy Terrill entered the office and stated, in approximately the following words, that he ‘knew he needed Senate authors on two of his bills, but that it didn’t matter because the f—g retard Speaker wasn’t going to hear them anyway – or so that’s what the Floor Leader is telling everybody.’
- “He then stated, in approximately the following words that ‘He thinks he’s got one bad leg now, wait until I break his other G-D— leg.’ ” (http://www.capitolbeatok.com/reports/how-members-voted-on-terrill-reprimand-and-what-affidavit-says)
The late, great editorial writer Deacon New – my mentor when I first worked at The Oklahoman in 1990 – often said, “Watch out for the woolyboogers. Secret plans and dirty tricks always come at the end of the session, inserted into important bills at the last second.”
Terrill’s plans for Leftwich at Medical Examiner’s office were not only a woolybooger, but also too brazen.
Gov. Brad Henry, who backed practical reforms embedded elsewhere in the bill, vetoed it after learning of Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater’s bribery probe.
At the recent jury trial, varied witnesses, some of whom did not consider Terrill’s actions the equivalent of a bribe, gave forthright responses to questions in open court.
It took more than three years to indict, try and convict Terrill. Leftwich will have her own day in court, come December.
Bottom line: Prater refused to accept Terrill’s version of business as usual.
Combined with reforms under former Speaker Steele’s leadership, the Terrill scandal has triggered more transparency, and fewer “woolyboogers.”
Terrill got away with a lot, for a long time, but he did not get away with this one.
The jury’s verdict is rough justice, but justice nonetheless.