Terry O'Donnell
Rep. Terry O'Donnell (R-Catoosa) listens to Gov. Kevin Stitt's State of the State address on Monday, Feb. 2, 2020. (Michael Duncan)

An Oklahoma County grand jury indicted House Speaker Pro Tempore Terry O’Donnell late Friday afternoon, charging the House of Representatives’ second highest-ranking member and his wife, Teresa O’Donnell, with eight counts related to legislation he supported that allowed her to become a state tag agent.

Reached Friday, the influential state lawmaker told NonDoc that he needed to speak with his attorney before commenting on the criminal charges. He confirmed that his wife had resigned as a tag agent — also called a Motor License Agent — earlier this week.

Later Friday evening, O’Donnell emailed a statement saying he and his wife will “vigorously defend our integrity.”

“The Catoosa Tag office was an issue publicized by my Democratic opponent during my 2020 race. The citizens of District 23 know my wife’s family has served as tag agents in our community for more than 60 years,” O’Donnell said. “It is frustrating and disappointing that political operatives in Oklahoma City are using this to discredit our family’s character and destroy our reputation as a personal vendetta against me. We will vigorously defend our integrity.”

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater had convened the grand jury to examine matters of public corruption this fall. Today’s court filing, made around 6 p.m. in the chambers of Judge Don Andrews, marks the first major indictment from the investigatory body. The indictment document indicates that the state’s multi-county grand jury had been investigating the O’Donnells within the past year before its term expired.

Prater declined to comment on the indictment of the O’Donnells, which features eight charges:

The grand jury’s 40-page indictment repeatedly quotes the oath of office that legislators take, which requires them to swear that they “will support, obey and defend the constitution and laws of the United States of America and the constitution and laws of the state of Oklahoma.”

The indictment alleges that Terry O’Donnell (R-Catoosa) violated that oath by knowingly removing statutory requirements that would have prohibited his wife from functionally inheriting a tag agent position from her mother and that he knew his family would directly or indirectly profit from such an outcome. The indictment also notes that O’Donnell’s legislation increased the prices that tag agents can charge for services, thus increasing the family’s profits.

“I did not do anything wrong or inappropriate at the time, ” Terry O’Donnell told Nolan Clay of The Oklahoman in September 2020, when Clay first reported the tag agency controversy.

O’Donnell voted for tag agency tweaks in 2018

The Oklahoma County grand jury disagreed with Terry O’Donnell’s assessment of his actions, laying out a timeline of developments to show that the lawmaker and his wife violated the law and allegedly did so in a conspiratorial manner.

Teresa O’Donnell’s mother, Georgia McAfee, was in failing health in 2019 when she submitted a letter to the Oklahoma Tax Commission tendering her resignation as tag agent on the condition that her daughter be appointed to the post.

That letter was made possible by HB 3278, a measure authored in 2018 by Rep. Chris Kannady (R-OKC) and then-Senate Floor Leader Greg Treat (R-OKC). The bill allowed a tag agent to submit a letter of resignation “contingent on the appointment” of an applicant. Terry O’Donnell voted in favor of the measure, which is the basis for one of the misdemeanor charges.

O’Donnell also voted for SB 1439 in 2018, which removed a requirement that the Oklahoma Tax Commission interview all applicants for a tag agent position. That bill was authored by the two top members of the Oklahoma Legislature, then-Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Schulz (R-Altus) and House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka), one of O’Donnell’s closest friends at the State Capitol.

The final pages of the indictment list 27 witnesses who testified regarding the investigation of the O’Donnells before either the multi-county grand jury or the Oklahoma County grand jury that issued the charges.

McCall, who is the longest serving Republican House speaker in state history, is noted as having testified before the Oklahoma County grand jury. He released a statement Saturday afternoon.

“Certainly, every elected official should follow the law. I respect the law and legal process, and I will continue to cooperate as required with that process,” McCall said. “Because this matter is now proceeding through the legal process, I will withhold further comment at this time.”

Perjury charge involves OTC application

The perjury charge against the O’Donnells stands as the fourth count of the grand jury indictment, which alleges that the couple both knew that statements made on her Oklahoma Tax Commission application for a tag agent appointment were false.

According to the indictment, the OTC application said Teresa O’Donnell worked at the Catoosa Tag Agency and that her specific duties were to “manage the daily operation of the office: customer support, problem solving, reporting” and that she supervised “four clerks” and that her exact title was “assistant manager/clerk.”

“In truth and fact the defendants well and truly knew that defendant Teresa McAfee O’Donnell did not ‘manage the daily operation of the office,’ but was only a part-time worker therein who did not supervise any other tag agency employees nor hold the title of ‘assistant manager,'” the indictment states.

The indictment continues by saying the O’Donnell application to the OTC also said that the agency could “check” with Teresa O’Donnell’s “present supervisor” regarding her “job experience.” But the indictment alleges that the O’Donnells knew that Georgia McAfee, the applicant’s tag agent mother and named supervisor, was “in hospice care” and “only from time to time semi-conscious, and was in truth and fact unavailable and unable to answer any questions from the Oklahoma Tax Commission about the applicant’s ‘job experience.'”

O’Donnell carried bill directly related to wife’s position

The final action in the alleged criminal conspiracy involved a bill that O’Donnell authored and carried himself during the 2020 legislative session, months after his wife had signed a tag agent contract with the Oklahoma Tax Commission.

O’Donnell authored and voted for HB 2098, which made a series of changes to the state’s tag agency statutes, including one directly related to his family’s eligibility to operate a tag agency. Co-authored by Rep. Trey Caldwell (R-Lawton) and Sen. Roger Thompson (R-Okemah), the bill deleted a prohibition on state legislators or their family members being appointed tag agents.

That bill drew criticism from fellow House attorney, Rep. Collin Walke (D-OKC), following the publication of Clay’s story in September 2020:

The timing of Rep. O’Donnell’s legislation in connection with the timing of the transfer of his mother-in-law’s tag agency to his wife smacks of self-dealing; and at best, created an appearance of impropriety that should have kept Rep. O’Donnell from running the bill in the first place. As an attorney, Rep. O’Donnell should know that one of our ethical obligations is to avoid situations that create the appearance of impropriety. This is no less true for public officials. State representatives should serve their constituents, not themselves. Public distrust of the government is only exacerbated when people who are supposed to be public servants create legislation that serves themselves or their spouse. We expect more from our elected officials, and I hope that the questions and motives surrounding this legislation are investigated.

Per grand jury rules, the criminal investigation of this issue remains open before the investigatory body. The list of 27 witnesses interviewed regarding the matter includes two former and one current state tax commissioner — Clark Jolley, Steve Burrage and Charlie Prater — and two former directors of the Oklahoma Tax Commission, Tony Mastin and Jay Doyle.

HB 2098, authored by Rep. Terry O’Donnell (R-Catoosa), removed a prohibition against a state lawmaker’s family owning a tag agency. (Screenshot)

(Update: This article was updated at 9:54 p.m. Friday, Dec. 17, to include comment from Terry O’Donnell. It was updated again at 4:40 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 18, to include comment from Charles McCall. It was updated a final time at 2:22 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 21, to include video of Terry O’Donnell presenting HB 2098.)