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. Therefore, 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 also 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, bloody racial violence in 1921 convulsed Tulsa. The triggering event, inflamed by local newspaper reports, was an accusation that a black man had sexually 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 outbreak 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 was 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 cut off 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 farmer.
In office he did champion ordinary farmers and others in distress. Nevertheless, his own state programs did not get far, partly because of the Great Depression and partly because of his irascible personality. He clashed with Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, feeling that FDR had ridiculed him. Federal officials bypassed Murray and thus cut him out of much patronage. Murray became enraged and consumed by vindictiveness in his opposition to FDR and the New Deal, an attitude that stayed with him after he left office. To the end of his days he railed against the New Deal, communists, and "International Jewry." Worst of all was his willingness to invoke martial law, which he did a total of thirty-four times.
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.
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 investigative reporting by the state's leading newspaper, the Daily Oklahoman, averted a potentially major scandal based on the misuse of bonds for education purposes. 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. However, 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.
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.
In retrospect, several points stand out. The first is that Oklahoma does not deserve a reputation as the most corrupt of states, since Louisiana typically stands out as most deserving of that designation. Second, the state has known some spectacular cases of corruption reaching into the Supreme Court, the governorship, the House speakership, and the whole system of county commissioner government. Third, again and again it has been federal officials who attacked corruption and forced reform. Fourth, there have been some notable recent exceptions to the primacy of federal intervention, one being the case of Gov. David Walters and the other being the school bond scam. Fifth is that in both instances of state action, investigative reporting by the Daily Oklahoman deserves credit as a significant counterweight to the limitations of state and local officials.
Harry Holloway with Frank S. Meyers, Bad Times for Good Ol' Boys: The Oklahoma County Commissioner Scandal (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).
Harry Holloway, "Oklahoma Corruption: Past and Present," in The Almanac of Oklahoma Politics 2000, ed. Gary W. Copeland, Ronald K. Gaddie, and Craig A. Williams (Stillwater, Okla.: OPSA Press, 1999).
Matthew G. McCoy, "Dark Spot on the Sunbelt: Economic Stagnation and Political Corruption in 1950s Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 85 (Summer 2007).
Kathleen O'Leary Morgan, Scott Morgan, and Neal Quinto, Crime State Rankings 1995: Crime in the 50 United States (Lawrence, Kans.: Morgan Quinto Press, 1995).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Harry Holloway, “Scandals, Political,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=SC001.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.