County Commissioner Randy Baldridge, District 3, can continue to take his seat alongside Commission Chair Mike Helm, District 2, and Gerry Payne, District 1, come Monday morning when the regular weekly Commission meeting convenes.
“There is nothing in State Statute to remove an elected official under an indictment,” Helm said.
Helm took the initiative to check out the county’s options after learning last week that his fellow commissioner is under nine federal indictments for fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and tampering with witnesses.
State Statute only precludes a “convicted” felon from holding public office. The law assumes innocence until proven guilty.
Baldridge entered a not guilty plea and publicly stated he has no intentions of withdrawing his candidacy for re-election on the upcoming November general election ballot.
Under the circumstances, Helm said he believes “a speedy trial” would best serve the interest of the county and the voters.
Even “the FBI suggested a speedy trial,” Helm said.
Baldridge won the Democrat nomination and is seeking his second term as a county commissioner. He is opposed by Kirt Thacker, a Republican. If elected, Thacker would be the first Republican to hold the county office since Elmer McGuire resigned in 1982.
In the event a pre-election trail should result in a conviction, Baldridge would not be eligible to serve as county commissioner even if elected.
Helm said a post-election conviction could result in a special election (if Baldridge is convicted) that would cost taxpayers’ money.
Helm said the only way “to make (the timing of the trial) not political” is to have it before the elections.
The only other options available for removing Baldridge from office is a citizen petition and a grand jury.
“I don’t see that happening,” Helm said.
A trial date has yet to be set.
ANother side ...
In an Associated Press report, a Rogers County voter who resides in District 3 questioned the timing of last week’s federal indictment of Commissioner Baldridge.
Stephen Hager is a registered Independent who backed Democrat Ken Froese in the July 25 Democratic primary. Froese finished second to Baldridge with a vote of 1,211 to 354.
Hager believes voters should have and could have been made aware of the extent of the charges against Baldridge before the election.
Hager claims the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tulsa dragged its feet in indicting Baldridge so it could influence the County Commission election in favor of Republican candidate Kirt Thacker.
Hager talked to the Progress and said he visited the U.S. Attorney’s office last week and requested a “chain of custody” on the FBI’s evidence.
Hager claims FBI evidence was turned into the U.S. Attorney’s office in early July, “some time ago and just set up there in Tulsa.”
“You can’t tell me they didn’t know a primary election was coming up,” Hager said.
Baldridge won with over 66 percent of the vote even though rumors of a federal investigation and pending indictment were circulating.
On the July ballot with Baldridge and Froese was Bruce Long. Long was working as Baldridge’s road foreman at the time and has now been identified in the indictments against Baldridge as a coconspirator.
County Commissioner Helm told the Progress, he believes had the charges against Baldridge been made public prior to the election and had Long won “then they would say that was political.”
“It’s nothing more than raw politics,” Hager said. “What’s sad is the apathy. People ... will give up and say my vote doesn’t count.”
Hager, a retired bank examiner who lives east of Claremore, said federal officials “weren’t timely in getting the grand jury to convene, indict and make it public as to what the allegations were.”
In the meantime ...
The Federal indictment against Baldridge alleges misuse of public funds and property resulting in the loss of approximately $13,000.
Helm confirmed Friday that federal agent Daniel Risner, who also lives in Claremore, “has been back in the county office and has visited with (Rebecca Muratet) and the County Clerk’s office following up on leads they have.”
The unspecified leads only involve District 3, Helm said, and “all” purchase orders in that district are under scrutiny.
Helm does not expect the investigation to grow in scope to include his district (2) or District 1.
“We already know money has been taken and the public trust violated,” Helm said.
Helm also does not expect any charges to be leveled against the cooperating witnesses which he referred to as “whistleblowers.” The indictment names five, including Long; county secretary and receiving agent, Cindy Rash; independent contractor, Brian Rash (husband of Cindy); Joesph Bentz (identified as a friend of Baldridge); and independent contractor, Brad Jones (identified as a friend of Long).
“I appreciate the fact that these coconspirators did come forward and stop the bleeding ... (Baldridge) is still innocent until proven guilty, but I’m glad someone stood up,” Helm said.
Helm said the Commission will continue to operate as a full board, but will take extra precautions with “everyone of (District 3’s) purchase orders.”
Contact Clarice Doyle, firstname.lastname@example.org or 341-1097.