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Passing the buck(s) in Oklahoma

The buck will stop closer to home if New Federalism proposals become law. Americans will look to city hall or the county courthouse for many services they've come to expect from Washington. But are these governments really able to deliver?

Some people have their doubts. And, ironically, many of the doubters are in Oklahoma - the very state where the National Governors' Conference is now meeting to discuss, among other things, the New Federalism.

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A 2 1/2-year undercover investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigatation and the Internal Revenue Service found evidence of kickbacks and other illegal schemes in 70 of Oklahoma's 77 counties. Nearly 200 commissioners and equipment suppliers have been convicted or have signed guilty pleas to felonies. The case is already three times larger than any previous United States public corruption scandal. More convictions are expected.

The corruption can be attributed to unchecked authority of the commissioners, according to two study groups - a committee of Oklahoma legislators and a private citizen task force appointed by Gov. George Nigh.

''The current structure of county government invites waste, fraud, nonaccountability and impaired service delivery,'' Governor Nigh's task force wrote in its final report. ''No longer can we afford commissioners acting like dukes in their own independent kingdoms.''

Oklahoma's problem should concern other states, particularly those in the South and the West. According to Vincent Marando, a Maryland political scientist and co-author of ''The Forgotten Governments,'' many states of those regions have a county government structure like that in Oklahoma, designed primarily to accommodate rural road maintenance and law enforcement.

When these types of county governments were constituted, the commissioner was little more than a part-time hand who drove a road scraper pulled by a horse. All local authority was concentrated in his office because services were few and budgets small.

The Oklahoma corruption uncovered by federal agents had been going on for years. US attorney Bill Price says a commissioner's usual yearly take was between $20,000 and $50,000.

Most kickbacks were for 10 percent of the contract price, although in some illegal lease-purchasing arrangements involving equipment the take was much greater. In another more flagrant but common scam, a supplier would bill a commissioner's district for goods never delivered, and the commissioner would approve the bill for payment. The supplier and the commissioner would then split a 100 percent profit.

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Such transactions eventually tipped off auditors. Three commissioners in Stephens County, within a fairly short period, had paid for enough bridge lumber to rebuild all the county's 370 bridges three times over.

This particular scheme led agents to the front door of Dorothy Griffin, a supplier, who confessed her involvement. Without guarantee of immunity, she traveled the state for 13 months, consummating illegal deals with commissioners while wired for sound. ''Without her,'' says Mr. Price, ''we probably would have gotten nowhere.''

Price insists other states have Oklahoma's problem. ''It is not a question of Oklahoma being more corrupt,'' he says. ''It happened here because we were successful catching them, not because it's any worse.'' He points to a 1980 Alabama case involving commissioner kickbacks, other cases in Arkansas, and Spiro Agnew's nolo contendere plea in Maryland as examples. ''Same deal,'' he says.

Furthermore, in an offshoot of the Oklahoma probe, US attorneys in Texas have either convicted or forced confessions from about 20 commissioners in that state.

But Brian Sheehan of the National Association of Counties, which represents 2 ,160 of the country's 3,105 county governments, insists that the Oklahoma situation is an isolated example. ''They didn't have a central procurement system that handled all the bidding (for contracts),'' he says. ''In the nation at large that is the procedure.''

Mr. Sheehan admits that many states have a structure of county government like that in Oklahoma, however, though with more rigid competitive bidding laws.

Efforts to force legitimate competitive bidding were central to reform efforts in the Oklahoma Legislature, which ended its session last month. Laws already on the books to force such bidding hadn't worked. Corrupt commissioners did what they wanted and other officials in each county, who supposedly act as his check, gave perfunctory approval.

Consequently, the lawmakers decided to create additional checks by spreading the authority around the courthouse. The county clerk now has added responsibility in the bidding process. Commissioners then monitor the clerk's actions.

Another change is that commissioners will no longer directly receive the road-building supplies they order. State highway department employees will do that job.

Governor Nigh's task force had recommended more drastic change. It proposed that the existing form of government, dominated by country commissioners, be replaced by a government overseen by a county manager. Commissioners would only be policymakers who would appoint a professional administrator.

But state Sen. John Clifton, who chaired the legislature's committee that studied the scandal, says, ''it (the change) wasn't in the cards.'' Most county offices would have been eliminated, and he says Oklahomans generally like having as many elected local officials as possible.

In addition, rural Oklahomans perceived this more centralized approach as a power grab by urban interests. Nevertheless, Senator Clifton says that even in Oklahoma ''the county manager form is an evolution that we will see develop.''

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