POLITICAL ROUNDUP: Legislator accused of writing bill to aid his family

State Rep. Terry O'Donnell, R-Catoosa, and his wife have been charged with multiple felonies regarding legislation he passed in 2019.

After State Rep. Terry O'Donnell, R-Catoosa, and his wife were indicted on charges of impropriety this week regarding legislation he authored in 2019, some Democrats are calling for his resignation, while others say he deserves his day in court.

An Oklahoma County Grand Jury issued a 41-page indictment including eight charges: three misdemeanor counts of violation of a provision of law regulating official conduct; one count of perjury; one count of conspiracy against the state; one count of obtaining property by deception; and two counts of using computers to violate Oklahoma statutes. The indictment alleges O'Donnell pushed through the bill to change state law in order to benefit his family.

In 2019, O'Donnell authored a bill that removed a section of law preventing legislators and immediate family members from applying to be a tag agent. That same year, his wife, Teresa, was put in charge of the Catoosa Tag Agency, taking over for her mother, who had worked there for more than 40 years. Prosecutors are arguing that O'Donnell violated the state's constitution when he did not disclose he had personal or private interests in the legislation. The lawmaker has reportedly denied any wrongdoing, saying he will vigorously defend his family's integrity.

"It is frustrating and disappointing that political operatives in Oklahoma City are using this to discredit our family's character and destroy our reputation as a personal vendetta against me," O'Donnell said in a statement.

Some lawmakers expressed concern at the time O'Donnell's bill made it to the House floor. Still, only three state representatives and eight senators voted against the legislation.

Oklahoma Democratic Party Chair Alicia Andrews is calling for O'Donnell's resignation, saying his actions were more than a conflict of interest, but "a lapse in ethical judgement."

"It's a reminder to [lawmakers] that no one is above the law, but I think it should be a reminder to Oklahoma voters that our legislators are human, they work for us, and when we don't have any semblance of balance in the Legislature, they're not holding each other accountable," Andrews said.

O'Donnell serves as the House Speaker Pro Tempore - the second highest-ranking member of the House of Representatives. So the news of his indictment came as a shock to many lawmakers.

State Rep. Bob Ed Culver, R-Tahlequah, said he considers O'Donnell to be a "standup representative" and a leader at the state capitol.

"All I know is I respect Terry O'Donnell, and I would be very shocked if he did something underhanded or that broke the law," Culver said.

It's likely O'Donnell won't be able to remain in office if he's found guilty of one of the five felonies lodged against him, as convicted felons are prohibited from running for office within 15 years of the end of their sentence.

The most severe of the charge against him is conspiracy against the state, which carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, said O'Donnell has a right to defend himself in court.

"The big question is, you're flirting with conflict of interests and using your professional capacity to pass a law to allow that to take place," Pemberton said. "If you're out there actually passing legislation that's going to benefit you or your family, I think that's an issue in itself that should not be breached. I understand his wife's mother owned the business and her health is bad, and she turned it over to her daughter. … If that came about without him having prior knowledge to it, then I don't see anything that would be illegal about that. That's where the rubber is going to meet the road."

According to Oklahoma statutes, the location of a new tag agency cannot be within a three-mile radius of an existing motor license agency, unless the applicant is assuming the location of an operating agency. The Oklahoma Tax Commission determines whether an applicant to serve as a motor license agent meets state requirements.

Some lawmakers feel as though their position with the Legislature shouldn't bar them from operating a tag agency, while others, like Cherokee County Democratic Party Chair Yolette Ross, consider it a conflict of interest. But Ross believes the Legislature should censure O'Donnell, rather than immediately call for his removal.

"I would prefer to wait it out and see what the courts say," she said.

Cherokee County Republican Party Chair Josh Owen and Cherokee County Libertarian Party Chair Shannon Grimes did not return phone calls by press time.

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