Oklahoma Political Scandals
Source: SCANDALS, POLITICAL - Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture
Political corruption is not easily defined. The legal definition is
clear but unsatisfactory because the press often refers to ill-defined scandals that cannot be completely ignored. Thus it
is better to use a broad definition encompassing scandalous behavior by officials who abuse the public trust for reasons not
only of personal gain, but for other reasons
that may have serious negative consequences for public affairs.
At the outset it merits mention that Oklahoma does not rank as the most corrupt of states. That dubious distinction typically
goes to Louisiana. Still, Oklahoma has had outstanding cases of scandal reaching into the highest levels of state government,
including the state's Supreme Court
and the chief executive.
As for the historical record, Oklahoma began as Indian Territory in the early 1800s, and much of the nineteenth century was laced with fraud perpetuated against American Indians. The
infamous Trail of Tears of the 1830s began in a scheme by federal officials to transfer Indians from their tribal holdings
on the east coast, which white settlers sought, to what was then a
distant western wilderness. Removal of the Indians was supposed to be voluntary. But voluntary compliance broke down, and officials resorted to force. The resulting
forced march by the
Indians through winter weather killed men, women, and children by the thousands. This abuse of the public trust by officials
surely ranks as one of the most shameful chapters in both national and state history.
Fraud also occurred in the practices of Texas cattlemen who drove their herds across the Indian Territory on the way to market.
They were supposed to get the permission of the Indians and pay them fair value. But the Indians lived in tribal communities
and knew little about private property and market value. The resulting transactions were apt to be to the disadvantage of
the Indian landowners.
The famous Land Run of 1889 was itself a form of fraud, as were later runs. The original Indian removal promised land to the Indians "in perpetuity."
But the runs, in opening the territory to large-scale settlement by whites, effectively scuttled the basic idea of Indian
Territory as Indian land. White settlers were delighted, and the runs have been widely celebrated. Yet for the Indians the
runs meant that whites were again breaking solemn promises made to them.
Not many years after 1907 statehood, a race riot in 1921 convulsed Tulsa. The triggering event, inflamed by local newspaper reports, was an accusation that a black man had
assaulted a white woman. Racial tensions, abetted by growing Ku Klux Klan activities, had been on the rise for some time. Some commentators have described the riot as one of the nation's worst. The
body count is uncertain but ranges from seventy or eighty to as many as three
hundred. A destructive fire raged through the Greenwood District, destroying homes and a prosperous business section. Thousands
of blacks were rounded up as "suspects" and jailed, some for a week or so.
At the time, many whites reacted with horror. But a veil of denial, created mainly by public officials, descended. History
books usually gave this episode only passing mention. Not until the
late 1990s was the riot reexamined and made the subject of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission that undertook further inquiry,
including consideration of possible reparations. Whatever else might be said, the veil of denial had been lifted.
The period of the 1920s and 1930s was one of bitter political strife. Martial law was invoked repeatedly, and two sitting
governors were removed from office. Jack Walton was the first to be
removed. Elected in 1920, he ran a spectacular campaign heavy in showmanship. But in office he was a disaster. He publicly
fought the Klan yet unofficially colluded with them. He wildly extended patronage powers to appoint college presidents and
professors, arousing intense opposition. He invoked martial law and at one point had the whole state under martial law.
Inaugurated on January 9, 1923, he was impeached and removed from office in the same year on November 23.
The next freely elected governor in 1926 was Henry S. Johnston, who suffered a fate similar to Walton's, although not because of criminal misconduct. He spent much time in his office reportedly
engaged in solitary meditation and consultation with his personal astrologer. His administrative assistant had a room full
of caged canaries with whom he claimed to communicate. The governor's personal secretary ran a tight ship that effectively
legislators wanting to discuss vital patronage matters. Legislators became furious and, in keeping with these turbulent times,
ousted Johnston from office in January 1929. Thus by this early date the young state had removed two sitting governors from
office, a record not matched by any other state until much later.
The next governor, elected in 1930 at the onset of the Great Depression, was William H. Murray, better known as "Alfalfa Bill." He acquired a national reputation of sorts partly because
of his oddball behavior. Like Jack Walton he was a great showman. He presented himself as one with the common farmers in language
and in dress. He dressed in rumpled clothing, including the trademark long johns that extended conspicuously below his pant
legs. His language could be crude, even obscene. That he was mostly an opportunist interested in electoral gain is suggested
by his background. He had worked as a teacher and reporter, had read law, and had gained recognition as expert in tribal land
claims. The woman he married was related to a tribal chief. These are high-status traits, not those of an unlettered, rumpled
Not until the 1960s did major scandals again surface, and then they did so with a vengeance. Three justices of the Oklahoma
Supreme Court were removed from office by impeachment or resignation arising from IRS investigations of reports that justices
were taking kickbacks for favorable decisions. A powerful former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, who had
been a dominant figure in state government, was convicted and sent to jail as a result of IRS investigations arising from
charges that he failed to report income received in return for political
favors. Then in 1975 a former governor, David Hall, was convicted, shortly after leaving office, of misusing his powers of office by trying to direct a state retirement fund
to help a friend with a loan. Again, federal officials were the chief agents in cleaning up the corruption.
Shortly thereafter in 1980 a huge scandal erupted stemming from the conviction of some 220 county commissioners and suppliers.
Their convictions rose from involvement in a scheme of kickbacks paid on orders for county road-building supplies such as
timber and gravel. The scandal reached all across the state in roughly sixty counties large and small, urban and rural. It
had been going on for as long as anyone could remember. Again, federal officials rooted out the corruption.
Penn Square, bank failure, 1982, was treated as bad banking, which we now know is the cover.
Then in 1990 a scandal emerged from the gubernatorial campaign of winner and Democrat David Walters. Walters won, but the campaign was accompanied by a barrage of press reports that he had raised and spent more money that
any previous candidate. Investigations by the state attorney general and Oklahoma County district attorney led to charges
of campaign violations. Walters finally pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges. Critics attacked the outcome as letting
him escape too easily from more serious charges. Still, the publicity probably moderated some of the worst excesses of campaign
finance. And in this case reform had occurred with little federal
intervention, in itself a significant gain.
In 1991 a potentially major scandal based on the misuse of bonds for education purposes was averted by investigative reporting
in the state's leading newspaper, the Daily Oklahoman. That education bonds could be a hazard if not properly handled became apparent when the state's two largest school districts
found themselves charged by the IRS with back taxes amounting in each case to several hundred thousand dollars. The metro
districts had been using education bonds not as a legitimate supplement to school spending but as a means of making money
via interest accrued on the bonds. Initially the education bond program was hugely popular, with many school districts large
and small signing on. But the investigative reports created skepticism and withdrawals. Had these districts not dropped out
of the program, they could have been held liable by the IRS just as the metro districts had been. The investigative reporting
by the Oklahoman
disrupted the bond scam. Federal intervention, apart from the potential IRS threat, was minimal.
1990s also included the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority Bond fraud, that led Stifel Nicolaus to vacate Oklahoma, turning the office over to the staff under the name of Capital West Securities. It was this staff behind lobbying for the GOP tax revenue theft and subversive US Election Funding.
Finally, in 2000 scandal broke out in the Public Health Department. An acting director was arrested and charged with bribery,
with others also under arrest and investigation. Wrongdoing
had occurred in the administration of the system of inspections for hundreds of nursing homes under the aegis of the department.
Generous campaign contributions by some nursing home
operators reportedly corrupted legislative and administrative supervision of the nursing homes.
The FBI and federal courts were the source of reform, as so often in the past.