January 2008 Editorial Winner

A sad day

By Wayne Trotter, Tecumseh Countywide News

Jeff and Lori McMahan have a lot of friends and supporters in Pottawatomie County. Despite clear signals that things were headed in that direction, most were shocked and disappointed Friday when a federal indictment was issued alleging that Oklahoma's state auditor and his wife engaged in what amounts to influence peddling.

You can certainly count us among the disappointed. This all seems so out of character and so very unlike the two friends and neighbors we have known, liked, admired and supported for years.

But couched in colorful language, the indictment is very real and very serious. It was issued by a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Oklahoma and outlines what federal prosecutors believe was a pattern of accepting illegal campaign assistance, trips, jewelry and personal favors in exchange for lenient treatment of an Eastern Oklahoma abstract business owned by a one-time Gene Stipe associate identified in the indictment only as "co-conspirator/schemer number one."

In nine counts based largely on using the mails, this indictment alleges that the McMahan campaign accepted more than $77,000 in questionable contributions in the 2002 election alone while the McMahans themselves took jewelry, a fishing trip, junkets to New Orleans and Biloxi and another to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Combined with what the government says is favorable treatment of the abstract firm by the auditor and inspector's office, prosecutors allege that adds up to conspiracy, bribery, racketeering and fraud.

Strong stuff ... but only one side of the story. Will it convince a jury? Time will tell.

It is an aside but nevertheless interesting that the indictment uses the term "co-conspirator/schemer" a total of 120 times without ever charging or actually naming either individual number one or number two. Those people are being widely identified in the press as Steve Phipps of Kiowa (number one), owner of the abstract company, and Tim Arbaugh (number two), a former employee of the auditor and inspector's office who once headed the abstract division. Viewed in a vacuum, the indictment's failure to identify gives it the flavor of persecuting Eve while letting the serpent slither away. But that isn't entirely the case. Phipps at least has already pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud (the McMahans are charged with seven) and every person who watches TV knows how prosecutors leverage information to catch bigger fish. As an elected official, Jeff McMahan is a fat largemouth bass.

Attorney Randy C. Eddy, who represents Jeff McMahan (Lori McMahan's lawyer is Kevin Krahl) said while both are "capable of errors in judgment or in association," they are innocent of the charges. Lots of people in the Shawnee/Tecumseh area hope the lawyers can back that up in court, that even though the government can likely show that the McMahans ran with fast company and let some things get out of control, none of that rises to the level of criminal activity. Once again, time will tell.

It is very important to remember that the McMahans have been indicted, not convicted, and remain innocent until proven guilty. Calls for Jeff McMahan to resign as auditor are at worst blatantly political and at best very premature. But Gov. Brad Henry's suggestion that the auditor and inspector take an administrative leave of absence is one that should be seriously considered. It is hard to see how an office that depends so heavily on integrity and public confidence can effectively operate under a cloud.

Friday was a sad day not only for the McMahans, not only for Tecumseh, not only for Pottawatomie County but for all of Oklahoma. We are deeply saddened for our friends, for our state and for its government.