Petition the government and go to jail? OK arrests petitioners

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Tax-Control Advocates May Go to Jail in Oklahoma
By Pete Winn, CNS News.com Senior Writer
March 20, 2008

(CNSNews.com) – A veteran activist for taxpayer ballot initiatives and two associates could face up to 10 years in prison in Oklahoma for exercising what libertarians say is a basic constitutional right: circulating petitions to get an initiative on the state ballot.

Activist Paul Jacob appeared in court in Oklahoma City on March 14 alongside two co-defendants – Susan Johnson and Rick Carpenter – in connection with felony charges that they violated an Oklahoma law that requires everyone who circulates petitions to be a resident of the state.

“I happen to think that the prosecution is 100 percent politically motivated,” Jacob told Cybercast News Service. “It’s an attempt to frighten, intimidate, and silence not only myself and the other two individuals, but really every person in Oklahoma who might dare to do a petition drive to reform the government.”

The trio, dubbed “The Oklahoma 3,” were first indicted last October, then re-indicted in January on the charges, which were brought by Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson. A trial date, expected to be July 23, has not yet been formally set. Edmondson alleges that the three “defrauded” the state by hiring non-Oklahoma signature-gatherers for a 2006 ballot initiative to create a taxpayer bill of rights (TABOR) in Oklahoma. If convicted, they could each face a maximum of 10 years in jail and a $25,000 fine.

TABOR initiatives essentially control the growth of state revenue (taxes) by tying it to the inflation rate and the population growth, and they mandate that state budget surpluses be refunded to the taxpayers. Jacob, who led the term limits movement of the 1990s as head of US Term Limits, is president of the Virginia-based ballot-initiative group Citizens in Charge. Johnson is president of a Michigan-based petition firm, National Voter Outreach. Carpenter, who headed the initiative group Oklahomans in Action, is a Tulsa resident. All three have pleaded not guilty.

Jacob said his role was only as an advisor to the campaign. The charges, he said, stem from the fact that a number of people associated with the campaign moved to Oklahoma during the course of the petition drive – something that has happened in petition drives in Oklahoma in the past without incident.

“The petition company and folks that were working on the ground in Oklahoma had talked with state officials and asked specifically what constitutes a resident and could people move to Oklahoma and collect signatures,” Jacob said. “They were told that, indeed, they could. Under Oklahoma law people can immediately register to vote and immediately begin collecting signatures when they move to the state and declare themselves a resident. That’s what happened,” he added. “The charge itself is bogus,”

Jacob said. David Dunn, legislative director for the Oklahoma Family Policy Council, called the prosecution “a witch hunt.” “Oklahoma has a long history of citizen initiatives to put things on the ballot before the people,” Dunn told Cybercast News Service. “For whatever reason, our state is trying to prosecute these people simply because some officeholders don’t like the issue that Mr. Jacob was trying to put on the ballot.”

Brandon Dutcher, vice president of the conservative Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, agreed, saying the prosecution appears to have been personally instigated by Edmondson, a Democrat who Dutcher said may have been motivated by his opposition to the now-defunct TABOR initiative. “Drew Edmondson is very liberal,” Dutcher said.

“One can only speculate that he is trying to send a message to conservatives: ‘How dare you try to limit the size of government!'” Edmondson, whose office did not respond to an interview request from Cybercast News Service before press time, defended his actions in a Nov. 24, 2007, letter to The Wall Street Journal. “(T)hrough their allegedly illegal actions, Carpenter, Jacob, and Johnson silenced the voices of the Oklahoma voters who signed the initiative petition,” Edmondson wrote. “This scheme to circumvent Oklahoma’s residency requirement caused the entire petition to be scrapped,” he said.

“The accused are not the victims. The victims are those Oklahomans who signed a petition that has been thrown out because of fraud. If you don’t like this particular statute, go to the legislature and change it.”

Oklahoma State Sen. Randy Brogdon (R-Owasso), however, strongly attacked Edmondson for the prosecution and warned that what was happening was a travesty of justice.

“Everyone should be deeply concerned about this,” Brogdon said. “If this shameful political assault succeeds, everyone is at risk. It is an outrage.”

Pat McGuigan, an Oklahoma City journalist who used to work for the conservative Free Congress Foundation and the Heritage Foundation, said that the statute itself is questionable – what he called “a jump-ball.”

It’s perfectly reasonable, McGuigan said, to require that everyone who signs a petition in the Sooner State be an Oklahoma resident and that only Oklahomans can vote on initiatives. But to require that everyone who circulates a petition is an Oklahoman and then to threaten someone with a prison term is a “massive overreaction,” he said. “It was unwarranted for (Jacob) to be led away in handcuffs and face a possible prison term over what is essentially a procedural matter,” McGuigan told Cybercast News Service.

A lawsuit challenging the Oklahoma statute itself is set to go to the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver in April.

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