MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

April 12, 2012

County elections draw hopefuls

Four posts up for election, incumbents to face challengers

A flurry of activity kept election officials hopping Wednesday, the first of a three-day filing period for county, state and federal offices.

Contests developed in all four Muskogee County posts up for election this year. All the incumbents — two of them, appointments — declared candidacies and drew challengers.

Muskogee County Court Clerk Paula Sexton drew her first opponent since 2002, when she competed in a field of six for an unexpired, two-year term. Eugene Blankenship, the county’s former emergency management director, said the office needs better oversight than what it has seen the past few years.

“The court clerk has thousands, if not millions, of dollars flow through the office, and there must be a strict accounting process in order to maintain and oversee these public records,” Blankenship said, recalling a 2008 case in which an employee embezzled more than a half-million dollars. “After 11 months of money being stolen on a weekly basis, I cannot say with confidence that the court clerk can move forward.”

Sexton countered Blankenship, saying one of her proudest accomplishments was rooting out the corruption within her office. Sexton said the embezzlement case was the result of a flawed computer system.

“The computer system the state had us using was flawed and allowed her to write checks to herself and her friends that appeared in the computer to be legitimate checks to other people,” Sexton said, noting the same thing could have happened in any one of the state’s 77 counties. “When we heard in 2008 that there were some checks that didn’t match, we immediately called the administrative office of the court and the state auditor’s office, and the perpetrator was arrested, charged and convicted.”

That case, Sexton said, prompted changes in the system at the state level and curbed the likelihood of similar conduct in the future.

Other races shaping up in Muskogee County include the sheriff’s election. Three-term Muskogee County Sheriff Charles Pearson, who was elected first in 2000, drew four challengers on the first day of filing.

His opponents include Muskogee Police Investigator Lonnie Bemo, Muskogee County Deputy Eddie Walker, former insurance investigator Jimmy Lee and retired police officer and perennial candidate Roger Lee, the lone Republican.

Pearson said the progress he has made during his three terms and length of his tenure may be what drew so many challengers.

“We’ve been here 12 years,” Pearson said, noting the growth of his department from 12 deputies in 2000 to 38 full-time deputies now. “We’ve grown, and not everybody is going to agree with all the improvements and advancements we’ve made.”

Pearson cited the development of a multi-agency drug interdiction team, beefing up of his investigations unit, and his involvement with the creation of a countywide emergency call center as some of the progress made during his tenure.

Bemo said he jumped into the sheriff’s race because he “wants to see some changes for the positive.” He said he wants to give voters an “alternative choice.”

“I’m hearing from people out in the county who say they want to see more deputies out in the county and less of them in town,” Bemo said. “I think the sheriff’s office can be stronger, friendlier and more professional — it’s what the people expect and what the people deserve.”

Jimmy Lee said he is running for sheriff to prove someone can be elected without financial backing from others.

“One of the biggest problems with politics is the money — they didn’t get into office by themselves, they got in there with the money from somebody who you probably wouldn’t want running your life,” Lee said, noting he will be accepting no political contributions. “You have to quit letting people buy their way into office.”

Lee acknowledged a criminal record that dates back to the early 1970s involving the interstate transportation of equipment.

“There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then,” Lee said. “I paid my dues, changed my life and chased criminals for the next 24 years.”

Efforts on Wednesday to contact the remaining candidates who filed for sheriff were unsuccessful.

Another race that looks like it might be hotly contested is the District 2 race for county commissioner. Incumbent Stephen Wright drew two challengers on the first filing day.

Former District 2 Commissioner Ronnie Pevehouse, who was defeated by Wright in 2008, and Mark Breedlove.

Treasurer Kelly Garrett, who was appointed in 2001 to fill the unexpired term of Glen Scott after he died, drew one opponent on Wednesday. Ward III Councilor Randy Howard tossed his hat in the race.

Tanya Staggs declared her candidacy Wednesday, challenging County Clerk Dianna Cope, who was appointed to serve the unexpired term of Karen Anderson.

The three-day filing period for candidates seeking county, state and federal offices continues through Friday.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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