Little Dixie Legislator: Gene Stipe (1926—2012)
This charismatic Oklahoman’s 53 years of legislative service stand as the most in state history. Several factors fueled both them and his unparalleled legislative power. He remains one of the most brilliant Oklahoma solons ever, one of the greatest orators, and possessor of an unparalleled knowledge of legislative protocol. He singlehandedly kept legislative bills in play for hours on end by debating, filibustering or just speechifying.
The loyalty he built among his McAlester-area constituents proved just as important. Historian and political scientist James Caster conducted election polling research for many of Stipe’s campaigns. He recalled:
“Stipe would hold ‘court’ at his offices in McAlester on Saturday morning. I’ve been there when people from a local church were there, needing the pavement in front of their church fixed. If you were behind on your rent, you could talk to him. His brother Francis told me that at one time, he was paying utility bills for fifty-five families. He also got ‘em jobs. When election time came, they remembered ‘Cousin Gene.’”
Federal prosecutors tried unsuccessfully for decades to convict Stipe of a slew of crimes they suspected him of committing as he built a political and financial empire in southeast Oklahoma and beyond.
In the end, his transgressions apparently found him out, in a bitter fashion. Another powerful Little Dixie politician, former Democratic Congressman Wes Watkins, switched to the Republican Party in the 1990s, as did many others. In 1996, he ran for his old seat in Washington, which represented Stipe’s state Senate district, and beat a popular Democrat. “Stipe was so incensed that Watkins could come down there to Little Dixie and get elected on a Republican ticket, that his anger knew no bounds,” Caster remembered.
It drove him to mastermind a Democratic campaign to unseat Watkins in 1998. Not only did Watkins win re-election, but federal prosecutors won multiple felony convictions of Stipe on conspiracy charges, obstruction of justice, and large illegal campaign contributions. Stipe pleaded guilty to the charges in 2003, resigned his Senate seat, lost his law license and state pension, received an enormous fine, and caught a five-year probationary sentence.
Duncan native and later Choctaw City Councilman Mike Birdsong, a prominent Internal Revenue Service (I.R.S.) officials for decades, recalled the sort of business practices that did not generate media headlines, but cumulatively caused many governmental and law enforcement officials to question Stipe’s honesty.
According to Birdsong, Stipe contacted the Taxpayer’s Advocate office in Oklahoma in 2002 regarding an on-going problem he had with the I.R.S.
“Senator Stipe was wanting liens that had been placed on some of his properties removed,” Birdsong, the Taxpayer Advocate lead analyst for the state, said. “I reviewed the case and found a pattern where Senator Stipe would wait until liens were filed and then would ask for penalty and interest removal to satisfy the case.”
Birdsong advised Stipe that the I.R.S. would no longer remove penalty and interest on his cases. “Stipe become upset and said he would have my job by the end of the year. Well, Senator Stipe resigned from the Senate in 2003 and I retired from the I.R.S. out of Washington DC in 2012.”
Stipe’s apparent continued pursuit of unlawful practices triggered a barrage of federal charges in addition to those mentioned earlier in this story that dogged him, amidst stretches in a Missouri prison hospital, until his death in 2012. These included felony counts of probation violation, conspiracy, mail fraud, witness tampering, and paying kickbacks.
His many friends and admirers stuck by him to the end. Longtime U.S. District Judge Lee West said:
“In his more than half century of public service, Gene helped ensure that each generation of Oklahomans was healthier, better educated, and more secure than the generation that preceded it. It is unlikely that anyone will ever exceed his contributions.”
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Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
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