Ed Murray, News 9
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahoma Secretary of State Glenn Coffee, the former president pro tem of the State Senate, was the key witness Wednesday during the third day of testimony in a preliminary hearing that will determine if there is enough evidence to send State Representative Randy Terrill and former State Senator Debbe Leftwich to trial on bribery charges.
Prosecutors allege that Terrill offered Leftwich an $80,000-a-year job at the state Medical Examiner's Office last year in exchange for Leftwich's promise not to seek re-election so a Republican representative could run for Leftwich's seat without having to face an incumbent.
Both say they are innocent of the charges.
Coffee was the Senate author of SB 738, the Medical Examiner's Reform Bill. It was carried in the Senate by Anthony Sykes. Coffee testified that he wasn't aware of anything controversial about the bill until after the legislative session had ended and the media reported about the district attorney's investigation.
He described the construction of the bill as being within the normal legislative process. Coffee testified that it was part of the system, necessary, that members of one chamber talk to members of the other about bills and that it happened all the time.
He told the court that he remembered the transition coordinator job, the one it's alleged was offered to Leftwich, was discussed during the 2010 session. When asked if he felt like that language creating that position was snuck in at the last moment, Coffee responded that he had no recollection thinking that. He testified that he first saw the language when he was presented with the final version of the bill, asked Senator Sykes if that language had been agreed to, and handed it off to Sykes for a vote. He said he felt all issues he had with reform had been worked out with the House and he was waiting for the process to go forward.
Coffee also testified that it was "no big deal" for legislators to seek jobs in state government within two years of leaving the capitol, saying the two exceptions would not have been created. Lawmakers can hold a state job within two years of leaving the legislature if the salary is paid for with fees or federal dollars. The former senate president pro tem did tell the court it would be inappropriate to pass legislation that specifically creates a state job for a state lawmaker, but added he did not think that had happened in this case.
Coffee testified that it was also the normal process for a lawmaker to meet with an agency head and tell them to hire a specific person for the job, as long as it was done in a civil manner. He said any strong arming of that agency head would not be appropriate. Coffee added that the legislator has no power to offer a job and no power to hire anyone for such a job.
He also told the court that he had sought out Debbe Leftwich over a long period of time for her opinions on the reform measure. Coffee said she has long been very interested in the affairs of that office and when asked if it would have been anything out of the ordinary for Leftwich to make any modifications or changes to the bill, Coffee responded, "no."
Randy Terrill's attorney, Stephen Jones, told reporters he thinks Coffee set the record straight with his testimony.
"First, there's no crime here," said Jones. "The bill wasn't passed to create a job for Senator Leftwich. That he was familiar with it, it wasn't snuck in at the last minute. This was a matter than evolved over a two year period concerning real problems at the medical examiner's office that the legislature wanted to exercise its rights of supervision and to change the way it was working."
Both Coffee and former Democratic leader of the State Senate Charlie Laster seemed to counter testimony from Tuesday. A Senate staffer had testified that it was highly unusual for a House committee chairman to talk to his Senate counterpart about wording in a Senate bill. But Laster told the court on Wednesday that as senate judiciary chairman, he did conference with his House counterpart in offices, hallways, on the floor, and other locations.
In other highlights of Day 3, Laster testified that he was shocked when Leftwich came to him in May of 2010 to tell him she would not run for re-election with the filing period coming up in June. He told the court it was very unusual for an incumbent with leadership credentials to do that in May. On cross examination, Laster told defense attorneys that "her reasons not to run made sense to me."
Technical testimony took up much of the afternoon court session. The highlight, over objections from the defense, the judge allowed prosecutors to try to establish a motive for why Leftwich might take a bribe. A State Retirement Systems witness testified that had Leftwich served the three years in the ME's office as outlined in SB 738, her retirement pay at the end of that period would increase from $23,040 a year to $43,200 annually, an increase of nearly 88 percent.
The preliminary hearing takes Thursday off and will resume Friday morning. The state still has at least one more witness to call before the defense gets its turn to present witnesses.