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Trump foes speak out during contentious Mullin appearance in Muskogee

MUSKOGEE — Serious critics of President Donald Trump may be a minority in Oklahoma, but it’s not an entirely silent minority.

A noisy band of about a dozen dissenters showed up at Connors State College’s Muskogee campus Tuesday morning to let 2nd District Congressman Markwayne Mullin know what they thought of his “impeachment update.”

“He’s lying,” said someone.

“No, he’s not lying,” said someone else.

“Yes, he is,” said the first person.

And so it went for the better part of 20 minutes, until Mullin threatened to have one constituent from the group, Tom Taton of Okmulgee, removed from the auditorium.

“Your idea of respect is for you to talk and us to listen,” retorted Taton, who nevertheless remained mostly silent thereafter until called on during the question-and-answer portion of the event.

To be sure, the tension at Tuesday’s meeting did not approach the near hysteria of those a decade ago, after Barack Obama’s election. Reaction from the majority of roughly 50 people in attendance Tuesday seemed to range from annoyance to outrage. At one point a man rose, stood over Taton, and demanded that he be quiet. A woman clapped loudly during a question — a very long question — in an effort to drown out the speaker.

An elderly woman muttered, “You should be ashamed of yourself,” as she walked past Taton afterward.

But the meeting illustrated the gulf between Trump’s supporters and those who want him, if not removed from office, at least brought to heel.

“There’s no accountability,” said Taton. “When he first said he could shoot someone in the middle of the street and no one would care, it was an indication of his popularity. Now when he says it, it means he thinks he ought to be able to do whatever he wants.”

Mullin and the majority of those present obviously disagreed. To them, Trump is the victim of an unfair impeachment process whose only goal is to unseat Trump one way or the other.

“If you’re truly convinced the president has done something wrong — which no one has been able to show that, because he hasn’t committed treason, he hasn’t committed bribery, there has been no crimes, there have been no misdemeanors,” Mullin said, referring to the four grounds for impeachment listed in the U.S. Constitution.

“You may not like the way (Trump) talks; you may not like the way that he walks. That’s not impeachable.”

The dissenters read the evidence much differently.

“Which of those things has President Trump not committed?” asked Leslie Moyer, a Hulbert woman who once provoked Mullin by flashing a red card at a public meeting to challenge the accuracy of his statements.

Mullin kept his composure Tuesday and said he has “no problem with people who do not agree with me.”

So far, more do than don’t in the 2nd District. But the don’ts are getting louder.

Impeachment reversal: Diplomat now acknowledges quid pro quo

WASHINGTON — “I now do recall.”

With that stunning reversal, diplomat Gordon Sondland handed House impeachment investigators another key piece of corroborating testimony Tuesday. He acknowledged what Democrats contend was a clear quid pro quo, pushed by President Donald Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, with Ukraine.

Sondland, in an addendum to his sworn earlier testimony, said that military assistance to the East European ally was being withheld until Ukraine’s new president agreed to release a statement about fighting corruption as Trump wanted. Sondland knows that proposed arrangement to be a fact, he said, because he was the one who carried the message to a Ukrainian official on the sidelines of a conference in Warsaw with Vice President Mike Pence.

“I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland recalled.

His three-page update, tucked beneath hundreds of pages of sworn testimony from Sondland and former Ukraine Special Envoy Kurt Volker, was released by House investigators as Democrats prepared to push the closed-door sessions to public hearings as soon as next week.

Trump has denied any quid pro quo, but Democrats say there is a singular narrative developing since the president’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, when he asked for “a favor.” That request, which sparked the impeachment inquiry, included a public investigation into Ukrainian activities by Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden and his son and Trump’s allegations of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said the House panels conducting the inquiry are releasing the word-by-word transcripts of the past weeks’ closed-door hearings so the American public can decide for themselves.

“This is about more than just one call,” Schiff wrote Tuesday in an op-ed in USA Today. “We now know that the call was just one piece of a larger operation to redirect our foreign policy to benefit Donald Trump’s personal and political interests, not the national interest.”

Pushing back, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham issued a statement saying the transcripts “show there is even less evidence for this illegitimate impeachment sham than previously thought.”

In the transcripts and accompanying cache of text messages, U.S. diplomats are shown trying to navigate the demands of Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who they soon learn is running a back-channel U.S. foreign policy on Ukraine.

“It kept getting more insidious,” Sondland told investigators, as the “timeline went on.”

Sondland testified that he spoke with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about Giuliani, “and Pompeo rolled his eyes and said: ‘Yes, it’s something we have to deal with.’”

In his revised testimony, Sondland, a wealthy businessman who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, says his memory was refreshed by the opening statements of two other inquiry witnesses, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, and Tim Morrison, a European expert at the National Security Council.

The ambassador initially testified on Oct. 17 that he did not “recall taking part in any effort to encourage an investigation into the Bidens.” He told investigators he didn’t know that the Ukraine firm Burisma, which Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate, was linked to Joe Biden’s son Hunter.

But in the weeks since a May visit to Kyiv for Zelenskiy’s inauguration, Sondland and the other diplomats had been heavily involved in Ukraine policy and in text messages about what Trump wanted as they came to realize the military assistance was being withheld.

Volker and Sondland both testified they were disappointed after briefing Trump at the White House about the new leader of the young democracy who was vowing to fight corruption.

At a pivotal May 23 meeting, Trump “went on and on and on about how Ukraine is a disaster and they’re bad people,” Sondland testified.

Trump holds an alternative view, pushed by Giuliani, that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 elections in the U.S., a theory counter to U.S. intelligence findings.

“ ‘They tried to take me down.’ He kept saying that over and over,” Sondland recalled Trump saying.

Trump told the diplomats to work with Giuliani on Ukraine issues.

Over the time that followed, Volker and Sondland proposed to Zelenskiy’s top aide, Andriy Yermak, that they a draft statement to be issued by Ukraine on potential interference with the U.S. political process. At Giuliani’s urging, that statement needed to have an “insert at end with 2 key items:” Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections.

“It was Mr. Giuliani who said: If it doesn’t say Burisma and 2016, it’s not credible, because what are they hiding?” Volker testified.

Pressed by investigators, Sondland testified that it would be improper for the U.S. to prompt Ukraine to investigate the Biden family. “It doesn’t sound good.”

The statement was never issued, as Ukraine refused it. Volker said he told Yermak it was “not a good idea.”

Questions swirled after a government whistleblower’s August complaint about Trump’s phone call with Zelenskiy.

By September, Sondland also told investigators, Trump was in a “bad mood” and nearly hung up on him when the ambassador asked what it was he wanted from Ukraine.

“I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo,” Trump said, according to Sondland. “I want Zelenskiy to do the right thing.”

As House investigators released more transcripts Tuesday, they also announced they want to hear from Trump’s acting chief of staff and a top aide to Pence, reaching to the highest levels of the White House.

Pence spokeswoman Katie Waldman said the vice president was unaware of the “brief pull-aside conversation” that Sondland reported having with Yermak.

She also said Pence was unaware of the ongoing back-and-forth over the statement and that it never came up during his meeting with Zelenskiy.

At a closed-door lunch Tuesday, Pence told Senate Republicans the funds were being withheld over concerns that the Europeans weren’t contributing enough aid and issues of corruption in Ukraine, according to a person familiar with the meeting but unauthorized to discuss it and granted anonymity.

Trump says the probe is illegitimate, and the administration has resumed its efforts to block the inquiry as two more White House officials, an energy adviser and a budget official, declined to appear Tuesday before investigators, even after one received a subpoena.

Meanwhile, investigators said they wanted to hear on Friday from Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. They contend his news conference last month amounted to “nothing less than a televised confession” of Trump’s efforts to have Ukraine investigate Democrats and Biden as the White House was blocking military funding.

Trump says he did nothing wrong, and Mulvaney later walked back his remarks.

The White House has instructed its officials not to comply with the impeachment inquiry being led by House Democrats. Mulvaney is not expected to appear.

Republicans have been unable to deliver a unified argument against the impeachment probe, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday he’s “pretty sure” how it all will end.

McConnell said he believes Trump will stay in the White House. “I don’t think there’s any question it would not lead to a removal,” he said.

A top Trump ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters he doesn’t plan to read the transcripts, calling the whole inquiry a “bunch of B.S.”

Sondland closed his addendum to the House investigators saying he may have had a second call with Trump, but has been unable to obtain phone records and “cannot specifically recall” if that was the case.

Some House staff members get $7,500 pay boosts

OKLAHOMA CITY — Legislative assistants working for the Oklahoma House of Representatives have gotten pay boosts of $7,500, according to House staff.

The raises, effective Nov. 1, will cost $363,137.

Base pay for the 39 House legislative assistants will increase to $47,000 from $39,500. The average pay for a state employee is $47,254, according to the 2018 Annual Compensation Report by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.

“The House is bringing legislative assistant salaries in line with market rates and comparable positions across government to maintain service levels to the public,” House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said in a statement. “Slowing the annual exodus of good House employees who take virtually identical jobs at other government entities because the pay is better improves the House’s ability to perform its duties for the public.”

The base salary for a Senate legislative assistant is $48,402, according to Senate staff.

According to House staff, at least 32 of the current 48 Senate legislative assistants used to work for the House.

“Over the past decade, the House has created greater efficiencies utilizing fewer employees,” McCall said. “We encourage anyone evaluating this to view it in full context.”

According to House staff, in 2009, the House had 146 full-time employees and 83 temporary posts. This year the House expects to have 125 full-time employees and 29 temporary posts.

The House has 101 members. Many legislative assistants work for more than one member.

During the last legislative session, the House, Senate and Governor’s Office got a hike in appropriations.

The House received $7.4 million in additional funds, an increase of 37%.

Lawmakers have recently signed off on pay raises for teachers and state employees.

Last month, the Legislative Compensation Board voted to increase legislative pay by 35.6%, effective Nov. 18, 2020.

Base pay for state lawmakers will rise to $47,500 from $35,021.

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Pardon and Parole Board's executive director happy with 'conservative' but historic release of inmates despite some online criticism

The Pardon and Parole Board’s executive director is pleased with how the historic release of hundreds of inmates from Oklahoma prisons played out.

Steven Bickley on Tuesday said the state took the “most conservative approach” in weighing whether to grant early release to inmates who met criteria established by House Bill 1269 — whittling 892 inmates down to the 462 who were freed Monday.

Bickley said the mass release was a “very positive step” that reunited families. On average, each person was freed one year and three or four months earlier than they otherwise would have been projected, he said.

“I don’t think another year in prison is going to solve society’s problems and make them better citizens,” Bickley said. “I think a year with family, on the outside, working a new job, getting a new life established, is a much better spent year.”

State Question 780 was approved by voters in 2016, rendering many low-level drug and property crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies. HB 1269 — passed in the most recent legislative session — applied SQ 780 retroactively for those who committed applicable crimes prior to the change in state law.

The historic commutation effort isn’t without some controversy, however.

A Facebook page called “Repeal SQ780” chastised the mass release Monday, citing public safety risks. One such Facebook post featured Kyeesha Alexander, an inmate at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft.

“She was released back into our community today,” the post states. “Tell me how she’s released as a ‘low level property offender’ when she’s barely served 2 months of her sentence for Assaulting an EMT?”

Bickley said that assertion is simply false.

Alexander wasn’t released, even though her sentence for forgery was commuted. Bickley explained that she remains locked up because her sentence for assault and/or battery on an emergency medical technician runs consecutive, not concurrent, to her forgery case.

Bickley said there were 62 individuals who received commutations but weren’t released because they either have other sentences to serve or detainers for warrants issued in other jurisdictions.

The Repeal SQ780 Facebook page didn’t respond to the Tulsa World’s request for comment.

Bickley noted that officials addressed public safety concerns from the start with several criteria.

For example, any person with a listed victim on file was automatically disqualified from consideration. During the vetting process, an additional 32 inmates were discounted after victims stepped forward to file notification or a protest, he said.

“So the mere presence of a victim led to an unfavorable recommendation,” Bickley said. “We weren’t trying to maximize the number of people being released.”

Other conditions were no objections from prosecutors, good conduct in prison and not being required to register as a sex or violent offender.

Ultimately, 527 of the 892 inmates were recommended by the Pardon and Parole Board for commutations.

After the vote, Bickley said three of the inmates were subject to either victim protests or a serious misconduct while incarcerated. So Gov. Kevin Stitt approved commuted sentences for 524 people instead of 527, following the logic previously used by the board in making its recommendations.

The 462 who were set free are the ones with no other obligations or holds to their name.

“All of these people were going to get a second chance, it was just a matter of when,” Bickley said.

Oklahoma makes U.S. history with hundreds freed from prisons