Should Speaker Cargill Step Down?

Image of Lance Cargill

(Update: Lance Cargill announced Monday he was resigning as House Speaker. The post below was published on Saturday.)

Does Lance Cargill still have enough credibility to serve as House Speaker? Is he just another player who apparently games the tax system in Oklahoma by not filing state tax returns or paying property taxes on time? Should he be trusted as a major state leader in determining how tax dollars are spent?

These are questions that are sure to come up after The Daily Oklahoman published yet another story about the state representative’s tax problems. Cargill, a Republican from Harrah, apparently was late on property taxes for six straight years, according to tax officials. The property taxes were due on his law office in Harrah.

Earlier, it was revealed Cargill did not file state tax returns for the last two years until warned by the Oklahoma Tax Commission. Four other legislators, including three Democrats, were also warned about not filing returns. To his credit, Cargill has admitted to the press that he made a mistake in each case.

Cargill also faces lingering questions about how he handled some 2004 campaign contributions that were supposed to go to the Oklahoma Republican Party but, instead, ended up at the Oklahoma County Republican Party. Some political insiders also say Cargill was involved in a “pay to play” scheme in recent years that allegedly strong armed lobbyists into contributing money so they could have access to the state political leadership.

No one is suggesting Cargill give up his legislative seat at this point. Perhaps, the vast majority of voters in the Harrah area believe their particular elected officials do not have to file and pay taxes on time, though this seems highly unlikely, and they can always vote him out of office. The problem here is the House Speaker position is a significant one when it comes to budget matters, and the person who occupies it should be above reproach when it comes to paying and filing taxes on time because he/she has a major say in how tax dollars get spent.

Even The Daily Oklahoman, a conservative, Republican-supporting newspaper recently editorialized: “Speaker Cargill keeps making mistakes or showing lapses in judgments that give his political enemies more fodder to shoot down his ideas and attack his leadership.” (“File folders: Lawmakers fail to comply with law,” January 22, 2008.)

As Okie Funk has recently argued, state Auditor and Inspector Jeff McMahan, a Democrat who faces indictments in a political corruption case, should at least take an administrative leave from his position. New information in the case suggests he should resign entirely. His particular position demands unquestioned public trust. Okie Funk also believes Oklahoma County Commissioner Brent Rinehart, a Republican, should resign given the charges against him and the particular duties and influence of his position.

Speaker Cargill, of course, does not face criminal charges, but his position also demands unquestioned public trust. If Cargill does not step down as Speaker, it shows Oklahomans that everyone here can game the tax system. It shows, just like the McMahan and Rinehart cases, that it is politics as usual in Oklahoma in 2008. This transcends political affiliation and, unfortunately, remains a part of the state’s legacy.