Okla. Senate on Tight Timeline in Fisher Case

September 13, 2004

Oklahoma senators will be under a tight timeline in October when they assume the role of jurors for the trial of impeached Insurance Commissioner Carroll Fisher, the Associated Press reported.

Senators were notified via e-mail to prepare for an Oct. 4 trial of Fisher on five articles of impeachment approved overwhelmingly by the House. If he is convicted, he will be removed from office.

Under the Oklahoma Constitution, conviction requires a vote of two-thirds of the senators present. The Senate meets Tuesday to organize as a court of impeachment and formally set the trial date.

Officials say the trial must be finished by Nov. 16, when the terms of members of the 49th Legislature expire, or the process starts over from scratch next year.

“I think it can easily be done within the time we have available as long as there are not unusual delays,” said Rep. Frank Davis, R-Guthrie, lead prosecutor for the House.

“One of the problems I see is the trial is going to be during an election campaign and a number of senators are going to be involved in that,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of waiting until after the campaign is over.”

Democratic House Speaker Larry Adair, D-Stilwell, appointed Davis as chairman of the prosecuting team, known as the board of managers. Davis is a former county attorney.

Fisher’s attorney, Irven Box, said he will do everything he can to delay the trial. But Box’s bid to get the Supreme Court to postpone the Senate proceedings could be an uphill fight, experts say.

Even Box concedes he has yet to find a precedent in Oklahoma case law to support his argument that an impeachment trial should be delayed until after criminal cases against his client are resolved.

“We find nothing in state history that is analogous to this,” he said.

He said some sort of an analogy can be drawn from civil proceedings that have been postponed in embezzlement cases until after disposition of criminal charges.

Senate attorney Robert Thompson, meanwhile, points to an Arizona Supreme Court ruling in 1988 that rejected Gov. Evan Meacham’s bid to have his impeachment trial halted until criminal charges were resolved.

In that opinion, Thompson said, the Arizona court held that since the only consequence of an impeachment trial is removal from office, the defendant “does not have a liberty interest at stake and holding an elective office does not involve a property right.”

While Oklahoma’s court is not bound by that opinion, “it is right on point,” Thompson said.

Others say the state high court may not want to take the case because of the separation-of-powers issue. Under the state Constitution, the Legislature is designated with the power to impeach elected officials for various offenses, including willful neglect of office, corruption and incompetence.

Those offenses were cited by a special House committee that investigated Fisher’s activities. The committee’s report to the House was approved, 95-0.

Three of the five articles of impeachment recommended by the committee were approved by 92-3 votes in the House. One article was approved 90-5 and one 88-7.

No House members stood during debate to defend the insurance commissioner.

The last impeachment trial in the Senate occurred in 1965 when N.B. Johnson was removed as a Supreme Court justice in a corruption case. That trial covered seven days spread over two weeks.

The House committee that investigated Fisher interviewed 38 witnesses, but a fewer number is expected to testify during the Senate trial.

Box said he would be doing research over the weekend to find cases that support his position that it is unfair for his client to undergo a Senate trial while criminal proceedings are pending against him on similar charges.

“It’s a due process question,” Box said, while adding he needs more time to prepare Fisher’s defense in the Senate.

He said he also has a death penalty case scheduled for court on Oct. 4 and “that’s another issue we will bring up before the Supreme Court.”

Fisher is facing two criminal trials on felony charges that include embezzlement counts.

In one of the impeachment articles, he was accused of corruption for soliciting and accepting furnishing in return for a favorable ruling on the sale of a Tulsa insurance company to a Texas group tied to Dallas businessman Gene Phillips.

Last week, The Oklahoman reported that Karen Fisher, the commissioner’s wife, collected $122,250 for her role in the sale of an apartment complex owned by a company linked to Phillips. Box said Mrs. Fisher did nothing wrong.

Fisher also has denied any wrongdoing amid allegations that include mishandling money from a continuing education fund, operating a charity illegally and depositing a $1,000 campaign check into his personal bank account.

He has repeatedly said he will not resign.

Fisher, if he is convicted and ousted from office by the Senate, would lose his retirement benefits since he will not be fully vested until February, officials say.

The criminal charges against Fisher grew out of an investigation by the state’s multicounty grand jury, overseen by Attorney General Drew Edmondson.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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