Was OKC Renaissance Funded In Part By A Crook’s Money?

With the massive adoration and tributes pouring in on local corporate and social media outlets to honor the late Aubrey McClendon and his contributions to the so-called Oklahoma City renaissance, I don’t think it’s too early to ask some basic, realistic questions.

Was the great Oklahoma City renaissance, an exaggerated term for at least some of us who live here and an absolutely absurd term for the city’s impoverished people without decent medical access, funded at least partially by a crook’s money?

Are those organizations which gladly accepted money from McClendon, who was indicted Tuesday on rigging prices on oil and gas leases, willing to give that money back to make restitution to the people the local wildcatter baron is alleged to have ripped off along with, according to a recent news report, his former partner Tom Ward, if the allegations are true? Here is a partial list of organizations, according to various reports, that took McClendon’s money: The Lyric Theatre, Ballet Oklahoma, Oklahoma Museum of Art, Arts Council of Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma Heritage Foundation and the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. What about the over-hyped Boathouse District with which McClendon was heavily involved? Then there’s the Boys and Girls Club of OKC, one of McClendon’s donees I appreciate the most. Despite these contributions, McClendon still had plenty of money left over to live a life with his family few of us can even comprehend.

Will those organizations at least stop their McClendon tributes and face the possibility the money they received was heavily tainted by corruption?

Will those prominent people who served on Chesapeake’s Board of Directors, which included Oklahoma State University President Burns Hargis, during McClendon’s tenure and during the time period of the allegations return all their compensation to those people allegedly ripped off by McClendon or at least turn the money over to charities that help the poor if related legal claims are later proven?

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Is Tom Ward Next?

Image of Aubrey McClendon

Aubrey McClendon is out at Chesapeake Energy as chief executive officer, accelerating the rapid changes in the dynamic of Oklahoma City’s corporate power structure.

Will Oklahoma City’s SandRidge Energy CEO Tom Ward be the next to go?

The roster of the big business players of Oklahoma City started changing in the fall of 2011 when Philip Anschutz, a Colorado billionaire, purchased the Oklahoma Publishing Company from the Gaylord family, who had owned and operated it and its flagship publication, The Oklahoman, since their inception decades ago.

Then, in December, Larry, Nichols, CEO of Devon Energy Corp, retired from the company, a company he and his father, John Nichols, started in 1971.

Now McClendon, pictured right, who has been under fire from stockholders for his leadership, alleged conflicts of interest and the company’s recent poor performance, recently outlined in a Reuters investigation, announced his resignation/retirement from the company yesterday.

In an announcement about leaving the company, McClendon cited “philosophical differences” with the company’s board of directors. Chesapeake’s stock rose on the announcement. Chesapeake was founded in 1989 by McClendon and Ward, who later left the company to form SandRidge.

But now Ward faces his own problems. A stockholder group, TPG-Axon, has asked for a change in leadership at the company, alleging Ward may have a conflict of interest with family members. “. . . there can be no doubt that SandRidge’s Board of Directors has failed stockholders by allowing its CEO's immediate family, using entities he created or funded, to compete with the Company in one of the most crucial aspects of its primary business . . .,” according to a statement issued by TPG-Axon.

Ward’s and McClendon’s situations seem somewhat related in terms of their philosophies of business approaches, though the specific circumstances are different. It appears Nichols, who is 70, is simply retiring. The Gaylord family took the money and ran in a time of media downsizing, leaving behind a legacy business with a great deal of local power.

What all this means for local corporate-sponsorship projects, philanthropical work by these companies and their charitable giving is anyone’s guess at this point. It’s also unclear how it might affect the local political scene, sometimes dominated by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, which is clearly in the same ideological camps of the larger corporations.

The most pressing question is whether McClendon announced his retirement/resignation because major layoffs at Chesapeake are on the horizon, and he wanted to distance himself from that action. Chesapeake employs some 12,000 people, with its main offices in Oklahoma City. Major layoffs have the potential to devastate the local economy. No one should want that to happen regardless of their opinion of McClendon’s business style.

In a larger sense, the changing corporate roster should remind all of us how fleeting and temporary businesses and their leaders can be in any given city or state. It’s about money for corporations, not city or state loyalty, and it will always be about money. Corporate worshipping and myopic charitable dependency can lead to a lack of diversity and obliviousness to important, long-range planning. That may well have happened in Oklahoma City once again. It looks like we’re going to find out.