Another OK court decision?

Paul Jacob

6/1/2008 12:00:56 AM - Paul Jacob

Sometimes courts make the right decision. Really. It happens. But it didn’t happen this past week in Oklahoma.

Oh, we should probably be glad it’s not another petition with hundreds of thousands of voter signatures being tossed out. And no, it’s not nearly as crazy as that ruling allowing a man to photograph up the skirts of girls at the mall.

This week’s decision by Oklahoma’s highest court simply means that former State Senator Gene Stipe is entitled to an $84,000 a year state pension.

Sitting Oklahoma legislators get paid $38,400 a year, so I wonder about a pension that pays a retired legislator more than twice what a working legislator makes. That’s fishy, no?

You probably wonder: Who is this guy, Stipe? And why should anyone give a hoot about his pension?

Gene Stipe was a state legislator for 54 years. He held onto his senate seat longer than anyone else in Oklahoma history. But in 2003, already facing imminent removal thanks to term limits, Stipe was indicted by a federal grand jury for illegally funneling money into a 1998 congressional race and for perjury. Stipe resigned.

It would not be unusual for someone to resign the seat in such a circumstance, of course. But Stipe is not your average politician. He had been indicted before. Repeatedly. And yet had not given up his political perch.

In 1968, he was indicted on income tax evasion. He was later acquitted of the charges. In 1975, he was alleged to have illegally diverted funds in a bankruptcy case and agreed in an out-of-court settlement to repay $60,000. In 1979, he was indicted again, this time for his involvement in securing a fraudulent Small Business Administration loan. Again, he was acquitted. Before the SBA loan case was concluded, Stipe was indicted for a fourth time. The charges? Fraud, extortion and conspiracy stemming from the extradition case of a Colorado man. And for the fourth time, Stipe was acquitted.

Talk about an experienced legislator!

Well, the fifth indictment in 2003 was apparently the charm. Stipe not only resigned his state senate seat, but, in 2004, he pled guilty to perjury, obstructing the investigation, and conspiracy. Stipe was sentenced to six months home detention, five years probation, 1,000 hours of community service and fined more than a million dollars. He also lost his law license.

Which brings us to the question of Mr. Stipe’s pension. Well, almost. First, I should mention that Stipe has since been indicted a sixth time, in 2007, for mail fraud, witness tampering, money laundering, and (once again) conspiracy. The charges involve an alleged plot to acquire state funding for use by private businesses.

Gene’s brother, Francis Stipe, has already pled guilty to all counts. Whether Gene, 81, will be tried for the same crimes depends now on his mental competency to stand trial. Suffering from apparent dementia, he has been declared incompetent and is currently being re-evaluated by prison doctors in Springfield, Missouri.

Now that you know a little bit about Mr. Stipe, you should also know that the state board administering Oklahoma’s retirement system ruled that Stipe’s crimes violated his oath of office. That’s important because a 1981 law requires that when crimes committed by a legislator violate the oath of office, that legislator’s pension benefits are to be forfeit.

Thus, the state of Oklahoma began sending Stipe a monthly pension of $1,572, for that portion of the long-tenured legislator’s pension related to his “work” before the 1981 law took effect. Stipe went to court arguing he should receive $7,042 a month.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court agreed this past week to give Stipe his full pension, arguing that his crimes did not amount to a violation of his oath of office. The lone dissenter, Chief Justice Winchester, wrote, “I would assert that tampering with an election strikes at the very heart” of the oath. He was outvoted 7 to 1.

Three state supreme court justices sat this case out. Justices Yvonne Kauger and Steven Taylor recused themselves. Taylor cited his exposure to local news coverage about the case. Another justice, James Edmondson, brother of Attorney General Drew Edmondson, disqualified himself without explanation.

Stipe turns out to be a large contributor to Attorney General Edmondson, so it is no surprise that several Oklahomans have wondered out loud why the ever-activist state AG hasn’t been involved in going after all the corruption discovered by federal investigators, including that of solon Stipe. And reporters asked why the AG hadn’t returned a $1,000 contribution from Stipe.

Attorney General Edmondson has a ready reply . . . well, at least regarding the thousand-dollar check. He explained simply that he hadn’t returned Stipe’s money, because there was no conflict of interest, since, after all, he wasn’t investigating Stipe.