New Book Offers Significant History of Political Corruption
Nichols, Max, THE JOURNAL RECORD
With only a slight reference to Gov. David Walters' campaign contributions, Emeritus Professor Harry Holloway has produced a significant history of the corruption-ridden political environment that has plagued Oklahoma since statehood.
In his new book, "Bad Times for Good Ol' Boys," the University of Oklahoma professor has focused on Oklahoma's county commissioner scandals of the 1980s with Dr. Frank S. Meyers, professor of political science at Cameron University in Lawton. They have analyzed causes of corruption as well as Oklahoma's political culture, governmental framework and public attitudes.
While some fear the endless string of political scandals through most of this century stem from a corrupt culture, Holloway and Meyers find this thesis "does not stand up."
They hypothesized "apathy, ignorance and cynicism" among Oklahomans in their attitudes toward corruption, but they found little difference between the state and the nation. Instead, they found the county commissioners operated in an institutional setting that "lent itself to corruption."
While they say modified reforms did make a difference in corruption among county commissioners, Holloway and Meyers point out Oklahoma's "populist tendency" to decentralize and fragment government remains a problem.
This book, published by University of Oklahoma Press, is important, because it comes at a time when we once again are doubting ourselves and the state of Oklahoma.
The authors seem to say we're "OK" as a people in our attitudes about wrongdoing, but we still must gain control of our state government. To me, this means we, as a people, must develop a system in which public officials no longer can bend or break our rules simply because others do it.
We have plenty of laws, but we can't seem to enforce them. There always seems to be a way out for those who break the rules. In terms of the county commissioner scandal, Holloway and Meyers said much of the corruption is gone, but the counties have become stronger and more able to gain state support for their operations.
"Splintered government makes it difficult for the voters at large to control officers effectively," they said. "Constituents have access to individual commissioners to pester them to patch private roads and to seek favors for all manner of good causes. And in this decentralized system, with access prized above all, commissioners have good reason to respond favorably."
Holloway and Meyers trace the political culture problems of "Oklahoma's Dark Past" all the way back to the Civil War. That war ended the "golden era" of the Five Civilized Tribes of Native Americans and ushered in "troubles, exploitation and a decline for the Indians."
Cattlemen leased land at terms to the disadvantage of the tribes, and "Boomers" led to white settlement. Meanwhile, outlaws sought refuge in the territory. Railroads encouraged white settlement and caused disorder by bringing brawling construction crews, gamblers, thieves, prostitutes and other hoodlums. Under the Dawes Act, Native Americans gave up tribal ownership in return for allotments of land, which led to fraud.
Charles Haskell, who became Oklahoma's first governor in 1907, was accused of misappropriating $6,000 for legal services as treasurer for the 1908 presidential campaign of William Jennings Bryan. He resigned as treasurer but still had strong supporters in the state.
Gov. Jack Walton was impeached and ousted from office in 1923, and Gov. Henry S. Johnston was impeached and removed in 1928. Three Oklahoma Supreme Court justices were implicated in bribery charges during 1965 and removed by convictions or impeachment.
Oklahoma House of Representatives Speaker J.D. McCarty was convicted on income tax evasion charges in 1967. Gov. David Hall left office in 1975 and was soon charged with extortion and bribery. A jury found him guilty. Secretary of State John Rogers, who helped put Hall in prison, was impeached on charges of incompetence, corruption and moral turpitude, and he resigned.
After all this came the county commissioner scandals, which Holloway and Meyers called "Okscam." A federal investigation led to 220 convictions of commissioners in 60 of Oklahoma's 77 counties for kickbacks from road building suppliers. It ranked, said the authors, "among the major corruption scandals in the entire nation's history."
Basically, the payoffs included 10 percent kickbacks from suppliers on supplies that were delivered, 50-50 splits on items ordered but never delivered, and kickbacks on the lease or purchase of heavy equipment _ usually 10 percent.
Rational for these kickbacks included low pay of commissioners, "everyone knows kickbacks go on," the money was part of a commissioner's salary, the help commissioners gave constituents when they were in trouble, and the idea that counties would have paid the same prices anyway.
There was an element of truth in each, and the authors looked into the basic theories of corruption. They found these included: Placing self interest before the public interest. Ordinary people face extraordinary temptations. The structure of government in America, with a separation of powers and with checks and balances, disperses power so it becomes difficult to get anything done. That leads to political organizations that circumvent the checks.
With these in mind, Holloway and Meyers compared Oklahoma and the nation in terms of demographic characteristics, political attitudes and political issues during the 1980s.
Using public opinion data, they found the state more rural than the nation, less diverse and less well off, but only in degrees. They found Oklahoma differed little from the nation in political efficacy and political trust. They did not find apathy, ignorance and cynicism toward government.
They tested the willingness of Oklahomans to bend or break a variety of rules involving the public and private sectors, and they found the responses to be moralistic. They also found the public to be heavily on the side of reform.
"When we review this complicated body of data on contemporary attitudes," they said, "we do not confirm the corrupt culture thesis." With that background, they turned to the institutions, and they found structural and political weaknesses that fostered corruption.
While other states have complex and fragmented systems of local government, they found Oklahoma's system especially liable to abuse because of the heavy reliance upon county commissioners for local road building.
"Our point is that the system was shot through and through with inducements to do wrong that were not seen for what they were," Holloway and Meyers said. "This scheme of things corrupted both good ol' boys and a lot of good ol' citizens who wanted their private driveways fixed. This last supplies a vital element in explaining how Okscam could be so pervasive and lasting."
Reforms included a separation of the commissioners' roles as purchasing agents and receiving agents, plus a state central purchasing system for heavy equipment.
One of the most visible turned out to be the establishment of a multicounty grand jury system, which allowed these juries to go beyond county lines for evidence. This, of course, led to the multicounty grand jury that investigated the Walters campaign contributions.
Some pressure hs been applied to dilute some of these reforms, they said, and the reforms made little difference in the state's culture, institutions or personnel. They said campaign contributions led to potential influence of a school bonds program that has been investigated during the 1990s.
They pointed out The Daily Oklahoman listed 86 contributions by investment companies from 1986-1990, including 74 by Stifel, Nicolaus Co. to state executives, legislators, party organizations, mayors, U.S. senators and congressmen. They said contributions were received by Gov. Walters and by "the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the state auditor and inspector and the state school superintendent."
While all of this was legal, Holloway and Meyers said the bond scheme and Okscam both remain long-term risks because of Oklahoma's agrarian populism and political ecology. The pressure to raise money will increase with only modest restraints while bond companies can influence officials with contributions.
That brings us, of course, to the current frustration of little more than slaps on the wrists for those who bend and break our campaign rules. If we do indeed believe our government officials must meet our standards of right and wrong, then it's up to us as a people to demand a system in which our officials must meet those standards.…
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Publication information: Article title: New Book Offers Significant History of Political Corruption. Contributors: Nichols, Max - Author. Newspaper title: THE JOURNAL RECORD. Publication date: October 3, 1993. Page number: Not available. © 2009 THE JOURNAL RECORD. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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