Exercising a state statute that lets him “assume control” over the prosecution of any crime, new Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond wrote a letter to Oklahoma County District Attorney Vicki Behenna on Feb. 1 saying his office would take over prosecution of the conspiracy case against Rep. Terry O’Donnell and his wife, Teresa O’Donnell.
“Consistent with our previous conversations, I have determined it to be in the best interest of the state of Oklahoma for the Attorney General’s Office to assume the prosecution of State of Oklahoma v. Terry Scott O’Donnell and Teresa McAfee O’Donnell, Oklahoma County case number CF-2021-5624,” Drummond wrote to Behenna. “I appreciate your anticipated cooperation and assistance in the transfer of this prosecution.”
Asked for comment, Behenna’s communications director provided a statement but did not answer whether Behenna preferred to keep the O’Donnell case in her office.
“The attorney general has full statutory authority to assume any case (when) he ‘deems it advisable and to the best interest of the state,’” Behenna said in her statement. “However, I am dedicated to investigating any level of corruption in our state government and will step in when needed. I will continue to work with the attorney general to make sure these cases are getting the full attention they deserve to protect the people of Oklahoma.”
The O’Donnells were indicted by an Oklahoma County grand jury Dec. 17, 2021, related to Terry O’Donnell’s actions as a legislator, when he authored and supported bills to change the law in a manner that allowed Teresa O’Donnell to be named a state motor vehicle tag agent in succession of her mother, Georgia McAfee.
O’Donnell (R-Catoosa) has been charged with eight criminal counts, including conspiracy, violation of a law regulating official conduct as a legislator, perjury and obtaining a thing of value greater than $15,000 by false pretense. Teresa O’Donnell was jointly charged with four of the counts, including conspiracy, perjury and obtaining a thing of value by false pretense.
The O’Donnell investigation was handled by former Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater — and contracted prosecutor Charles Rogers — following a recusal and a request for inquiry from former Attorney General Mike Hunter, whose handling of another high-profile case Drummond criticized last week.
One of the O’Donnells’ attorneys said they had no comment on Drummond’s decision. In past statements, Terry O’Donnell has said he is innocent of the charges, and he has called his prosecution “retribution” for having clashed with Hunter over how the former attorney general handled the state’s opioid lawsuits.
“This all started when I sought to hold some very influential people accountable for gross abuses of power,” O’Donnell said after completing the booking process at an Oklahoma County Jail.
But Prater, who declined to comment on Drummond’s decision to assume control over the O’Donnells’ prosecution, has emphasized that Hunter had no influence over his investigation or the grand jury charges.
“My involvement in this has nothing to do with politics,” Prater said in January 2022. “I stand by the grand jury’s work. I stand by the indictment, and the evidence that will be made public at the appropriate time regarding the matter and regarding the information that led to the indictment. People will have an opportunity to determine for themselves if it was based on the evidence or whether they think it was political, but I will tell you there was nothing political about this investigation or the indictment.”
Drummond’s communications director, Phil Bacharach, said he could not immediately answer “why” Drummond had chosen to take the case from Behenna.
“The attorney general will consider this matter and act accordingly in the best interest of justice,” Bacharach said.
Asked whether Rogers, a former AG’s Office employee who was contracted as a prosecutor by Oklahoma County to handle the O’Donnell case, would continue to be involved in the prosecution, Bacharach said that question is “premature.”
O’Donnell returns to leadership, case stays political
Although another member of Oklahoma House leadership is facing a felony DUI charge, O’Donnell stands as the most prominent Oklahoma political figure currently charged with public corruption crimes. While Drummond has also assumed prosecutorial jurisdiction over the charges facing the founders of Epic Charter Schools, O’Donnell’s prosecution poses arguably more political intrigue and potential conflict.
For starters, the Oklahoma Legislature controls the annual budget of the Attorney General’s Office, as well as any criminal justice or civil procedure policy proposals the attorney general may seek to have approved. And O’Donnell’s prominence and power in the Legislature meant that many of Oklahoma’s leading lawmakers are tied to the case against him one way or another:
- House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) testified before the grand jury that indicted O’Donnell, his former roommate, and wields final say over what measures do and do not receive hearings in the House;
- Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) stripped the key language in O’Donnell’s 2019 bill from a 2018 tag agent bill that he was carrying, and he voted against the 2019 version. “I am from Catoosa, Oklahoma,” Treat said. “I was aware of who his mother in law was.”;
- Senate Appropriations and Budget Chairman Roger Thompson (R-Okemah) co-authored O’Donnell’s 2019 bill and was endorsed as a supplemental witness by the DA’s office after providing a statement in February 2022. Thompson has also said that the 2019 bill was articulated as a House priority;
- House Civil Judiciary Chairman Chris Kannady (R-OKC) was also endorsed as a supplemental witness after providing Prater’s office with a statement the same day as Thompson. Kannady, who fell short of O’Donnell in the 2021 GOP Caucus race for House speaker pro tempore, was a close ally of Mike Hunter until his resignation and supported Drummond in his 2022 campaign;
- The office of Gov. Kevin Stitt, who said O’Donnell’s 2019 bill was “probably” articulated as a House priority that year, had considered vetoing the bill, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation. Prater’s office investigated whether a formal veto message had been drafted and discarded in 2019.
Complicating the landscape further is that Drummond and McCall are both widely believed to be potential candidates for Oklahoma’s open gubernatorial race in 2026. Drummond’s close political advisor, Trebor Worthen, is now serving as chief of staff in his Attorney General’s Office. Worthen has also been a longtime friend and political advisor to McCall.
Meanwhile, after a 12-month hiatus from a formal leadership position in the House of Representatives, O’Donnell was named House majority whip by McCall for 2023. In that role, O’Donnell will lead the “whip teams” that are used to gauge support on major votes and House Republican Caucus matters.
O’Donnell and McCall’s political careers have been intertwined for a decade. The two men joined the Legislature together in 2012 and now are entering their final two-year terms. In sessions past, they had shared an Oklahoma City apartment, and McCall supported O’Donnell in his 2021 bid to become House speaker pro tempore, which functionally made him the second in command behind McCall.
But one month after being indicted in December 2021, O’Donnell stepped down from the position in January 2022 as the criminal charges loomed. During the 2022 session, legislators abstained from voting on bills related to their professions and personal interests at a higher rate than they had in any of the prior five sessions.
The concept of legislative conflicts of interest were highlighted in the Oklahoma County grand jury’s final report regarding its O’Donnell inquiry. The grand jury made recommendations to strengthen rules against legislative conflicts of interest, including creating rules in the House and Senate “requiring the preparation of a ‘Legislation Conflict of Interest Impact Statement’ regarding proposed legislation similar to those applicable to the requirements for a fiscal impact statement for legislation.” The report suggested having either the Attorney General’s Office or the Oklahoma Ethics Commission produce such reports.