TULSA, Okla. (AP) — A two-term Oklahoma state senator admitted in federal court Thursday that he stole $1.8 million from the nonprofit agency where he worked and filed a false tax return.
Wearing a gray suit and tie, Republican Sen. Rick Brinkley stood before U.S. District Judge Claire Eagan and admitted wrongdoing on all six charges — five counts of wire fraud and one count of subscribing to a false tax return.
The 54-year-old negotiated a plea agreement with the federal government and is due back in court for sentencing Nov. 20, when he could get up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for the wire fraud charges and up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine for filing a false tax return, federal prosecutors said.
The Republican from Owasso previously said he'd step down from his state Senate seat on Dec. 31, but resigned from his legislative seat just before Thursday's hearing.
"Due to personal reasons I hereby irrevocably resign my office as State Senator for District 34 effective immediately," Brinkley wrote in a resignation letter to Oklahoma's secretary of state.
Brinkley recently completed two months' of inpatient treatment for a gambling addiction, his lawyer said after the brief hearing, and that the guilty plea was part of the healing. "Mr. Brinkley made the best decision for what he thought was best for his family and friends," attorney Mack Martin said.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation had said earlier this year it was looking into allegations that funds were misappropriated at the Better Business Bureau in Tulsa, where Brinkley worked for more than 15 years before he was fired in April.
A BBB lawsuit said that Brinkley set up fake corporations to steal more than $1.8 million, which he used pay bills and "support a hidden gambling habit." The lawsuit also alleged that a $50,000 payment from Brinkley to its accounts was intended to conceal details about the agency's finances from its board of directors.
Brinkley was the president and CEO of the local Better Business Bureau from 1999 to 2011, and its chief operating officer between June 1, 2011, and April 26 of this year.
The OSBI said its investigation was continuing into possible state law violations. A message left with the BBB seeking comment was not immediately returned Thursday.
Last week, Brinkley forfeited $81,000 in campaign funds to the state to settle allegations he had improperly used campaign funds — the $50,000 payment to the BBB for reasons that had previously been unclear.
Federal prosecutors presented five instances from the past 2½ years to outline their allegations — three checks for American Express and Discover card payments, one for cash and another check from which funds were sent to Brinkley. The government also alleged Brinkley failed to report $148,390 on his 2013 tax return.
The government said at a news conference before the hearing that the BBB's total loss was $1,829,033.86 — including more than $300,000 in payments made to an American Express account and $100,000 to a Visa account. Prosecutors said he withdrew hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend at casinos in Oklahoma and elsewhere.
"Public servants are held at a higher standard and our citizens expect our public servants to uphold the law in all aspects of their lives, whether it's in the course of their professional responsibilities or in their private lives," said Scott L. Cruse, with the FBI's Oklahoma City division.
Brinkley had been chairman of the Senate Pensions Committee and vice-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He is not eligible for a government pension based on his service in the Legislature, falling one year short of the six years needed to qualify, the state retirement agency said this week.
Oklahoma Senate president pro tempore, Brian Bingman, said it was appropriate for Brinkey to leave.
"These are serious crimes, and they call for an immediate resignation," said Bingman, R-Sapulpa. "With the senator having resigned and a special election having been scheduled, we can now put this episode behind us and look forward to conducting the business of the state."
Associated Press writer Tim Talley in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.