Tuesday, January 25, 2022

All Is Forgiven - With A Dissent: "This Is The Way It Works"

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has reinstated an attorney who had been convicted of bribery and allowed to resign in 2013.

The United States Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction but remanded for resentencing and portrayed the offense like an episode of Ozark, set in the Petitioner's Senate office dealing with the concerns of the Oklahoma Assisted Living Association

In May 2006, [OKALA part owner] Crosby hired lobbyist Benny Vanatta to promote Silver Oak's position with the legislature. Vanatta immediately arranged a meeting with Crosby and [Senator] Morgan in Morgan's office at the Capitol. According to Crosby's testimony, they met for "about an hour to an hour and a half." (Morgan's App'x, Vol. 5 at 1904.) His testimony continued as follows. I told "them all my troubles and the fights with the [ODH] and everything and that I needed some help. I didn't care whether it was a phone call, legislation, meetings, whatever, I just needed some help to get them off my back." (Id.) About forty-five minutes into the meeting, Vanatta left to get coffee. While Vanatta was gone, Morgan told Crosby, "This is the way it works. You pay me a $1,000 a month retainer." (Id.) Morgan assured Crosby the arrangement was legal. Crosby asked, "Well, do I maybe get some traffic tickets or something for that [amount]?" (Id.) Morgan told Crosby to call his law firm and it will "help you with [the traffic tickets]."  (Id.) In the end, even though it "[d]idn't sound right" to Crosby, Silver Oak made twelve $1,000 payments to Morgan from July 2006 until July 2007. 

...The retainer agreement between Morgan and Crosby was made at a meeting at Morgan's office in the Capitol. The meeting was  brokered by a lobbyist hired to promote Silver Oak's governmental relations. Crosby told Morgan "[he] didn't care whether it was a phone call, legislation, meetings," he just needed "help" in getting the ODH "off [his] back." (Morgan's App'x, Vol. 5 at 1905.) Morgan insisted on a monthly retainer, even though he could not represent Silver Oak before the ODH. See supra n.10. Shortly thereafter, Huser learned that "a legislator" requested a meeting between the ODH and Silver Oak representatives to take place at the Capitol. (Id. at 1949.) Seven and a half months later, Morgan introduced a bill favorably addressing Silver Oak's problems.

Panel finding

"that the Petitioner possesses the moral character which would entitle him to be admitted to the OBA" in light of the "clear and convincing evidence" that his efforts to be reinstated are supported by a wide array of people who have known him for decades--including former Governor Brad Henry, retired Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Joseph Watt, former Oklahoma State Senator Glenn Coffee, District Judge Phillip Corley (Payne County), retired District Judge Donald Worthington (Payne County), District Attorney Laura Thomas (Logan and Payne Counties), and his current co-workers at Cactus Drilling Company--and that he has consistently sought "to make positive contributions . . . to the general community as well as the legal community," particularly as demonstrated by the testimony of District Attorney Laura Thomas about Petitioner's help with a juvenile delinquent program being developed in Payne County..."

It was not unanimous per Justice Rowe

...the seriousness of Petitioner's misconduct weighs most heavily against reinstatement. Bribery is a conscious, well-thought-out crime. Petitioner made a calculated decision to accept a bribe under the guise of a legal fee. In addition to the intentionality, the notoriety of Petitioner's misconduct exacerbated the harm to our profession. Petitioner's deception reflected poorly on the character of the legal profession as a whole and undermined the ability of honest, hard-working, and well-intentioned members of the Bar to overcome public mistrust of lawyers when running for public office.

Petitioner served as the President pro tempore of the Oklahoma Senate from 2005 to 2008, making him one of the highest-ranking, most powerful, and most well-known elected officials in state government. His misconduct and criminal conviction were the focus of significant public discourse, which reflected poorly on our State and the Bar.

The uniqueness of Petitioner's misconduct begs the question of what potential deleterious effect his reinstatement might have on the public's perception of the Bar, which is of utmost importance to us in disciplinary matters. See State ex rel. Okla. Bar Ass'n v. Kinsey2009 OK 31, ΒΆ 15, 212 P.3d 1186, 1192. The answer to that question seems quite clear: Reinstatement of Petitioner's law license would signal to the public that this Court takes lightly incidents of public corruption by attorneys at the highest levels of our most vital institutions.

We must remain ever-vigilant of the harm bribery inflicts upon a democracy--and we must take seriously our duty to ensure that the integrity of our profession endures for future generations.

In summary, this crime committed by Petitioner--a lawyer-legislator using his law degree--is profoundly damaging to our profession. Thus, I respectfully cannot assent to reinstatement of his law license.

Justice Kuehn joined the dissent. (Mike Frisch)


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