Code Of Silence
In the first decade of the new millennia, an old political machine crumbled under the weight of it’s own corruption. The following is a summary of the Daily Oklahoman’s reporting from the Muskogee Federal Courthouse.
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MUSKOGEE — Mike Mass, once an influential state representative and a past chairman of the state Democratic Party, became Wednesday the latest crooked Oklahoma politician to be sentenced to prison.
Ex-state Rep. Mike Mass, has written a book about his turbulent years in power and disgrace.
A judge ordered Mass to spend two years in federal prison for taking kickbacks to divert taxpayer money to a gaming machine company and a dog food manufacturing company. A prosecutor said Mass, 57, of Wilburton, has a gambling addiction and left his family destitute. The judge ordered Mass to get treatment, if necessary, and to stay out of casinos while on supervision after his release.
Businessman Steve Phipps was sentenced Wednesday to one year and one day in federal prison for paying kickbacks to Mass and two other legislators. Phipps’ companies illegally received almost $2.8 million and he agreed to pay legislators 10 percent in kickbacks. Both Mass and Phipps had faced up to five years in prison.
U.S. District Judge Ronald White showed leniency to Phipps for his “extraordinary” cooperation in an ongoing federal probe of political corruption. The judge said the corrupt things Phipps testified about doing “made my skin crawl.” Phipps said, "I am ashamed of my conduct. I have tarnished the political process … I have tried to make amends.”
The judge ordered Phipps and Mass to together pay $279,258 in restitution to the state of Oklahoma. Phipps, 54, of Kiowa also must pay a $50,000 fine.
Phipps’ supporters included Oklahoma country singer Reba McEntire. The two were classmates in Kiowa schools, beginning in the first grade. "It is not often that people admit their mistakes. It is less often they do something to rectify the problem. Steve Phipps will always be my friend,” she wrote the judge May 17.
Testimony key in federal case
Phipps pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in 2007, admitting then he paid kickbacks to three legislators. He also has admitted other wrongdoing, including using straw donors to give excessive contributions to the state auditor’s race and to other campaigns. He was not charged further under a plea agreement with prosecutors that required him to cooperate.
Phipps’ testimony was considered crucial to the conviction of former state Auditor Jeff McMahan. His cooperation also led to criminal and civil proceedings against former state Sen. Gene Stipe and a guilty plea in a criminal case against Stipe’s younger brother, Francis.
"Prince of Darkness,”
In court papers, Phipps’ attorney described him as a business partner and protégé of the "Prince of Darkness,” Gene Stipe. The defense attorney wrote Phipps refused to become one of Stipe’s "fall guys.” Prosecutors said Phipps is one of the few individuals from southeast Oklahoma "who has had the wherewithal to break an apparent ‘code of silence.’” Mass also pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in 2007. Randall Erwin, a second former state representative implicated in the kickback plot, was acquitted at trial in April. Jerry Hefner, the third former state representative allegedly involved, was never charged. Prosecutors would not comment Wednesday about Hefner. Prosecutors said Mass "received the bulk of the $279,258 in kickbacks paid for financial favoritism.”
The judge also showed leniency to Phipps because he suffers from a rare medical condition that would be difficult for prison officials to treat long. A urologist reported Phipps might not survive prison. The judge also said he was concerned Phipps’ companies would fail and his employees lose their jobs if he was in prison for long.
After the sentencing, Phipps’ attorney, Dan Webber, said, "Steve is a strong person. I believe he will get through it. He and his wife will do whatever it takes to keep those businesses open.” Phipps sought probation and a fine.