Sunday, April 30, 2017

The 1991 School Bond Scandal

Tulsa Public Schools Claimed Poverty While Running A Loan Business With Surpluses

Roughly a decade after Okscam came to light, a major scandal broke that grew out of the misuse of education bonds issued by school districts. A word about bonds is in order. Federal officials allowed local officials to issue education bonds to tide them over financially tight periods, as when property tax receipts for schools were late coming in. The bonds were never intended as a means for local education officials to make money, a distinction that was to become quite important as the bond scam unfolded.

Bonds Without A Vote Of The Electorate

During the 1980s, a major bond underwriting company, Stifel, Nicolaus, and Co., was active in promoting the use of bonds to finance public projects. Stifel also engaged in promoting candidates for office via contributions to their campaigns. The Stifel bond company formed a political action committee (PAC) to channel political contributions to candidates, and also channeled contributions through company officers and lobbyists. By these means, they could contribute quite legitimately, just as other businesses did.

  Over time, their contributions went to large numbers of legislators, executive branch officials, and others in public life. The list of Oklahoma politicians who received Stifel contributions, via perfectly legitimate channels, added up to a "who's who" of people and organizations in public life. One wonders if those who failed to receive Stifel contributions felt that something was wrong with them.
  A major development in the use of education bonds occurred when the legislature in 1987 changed the law governing the issuance of bonds to allow school districts to issue such bonds without a vote of the people. Three of the key legislators on the committee that formulated the changed law were recipients of Stifel contributions via the channels described. Stifel worked closely with the State School Boards Association to pass word to school districts that they could issue the school bonds without a vote locally. Officials of the Association received large sums in fees. By 1990, some 270 school districts, plus some vo-tech schools and a few counties, were participating.
  Unfortunately, many of these participating school districts used the school bonds in the wrong way. They used inflated estimates of their education needs and then issued bonds to meet these needs. Since they overestimated needs, they had money from the bonds beyond that needed immediately. They used the extra funds to make deposits in banks, often in Japan, and then drew interest on the bonds in the banks. 

How The IRS Broke The Scheme

  At this point the districts were using the bonds not just to meet needs, but also to make money on the interest collected. And they were to find out that, in doing so, they ended up in serious difficulties with the IRS and other federal officials. In 1991, The Daily Oklahoman launched a series of investigative reports on the school bond program. These reports traced the political influence of Stifel in initiating the bond program and in channeling extensive campaign contributions to large numbers of political figures in the state. The impact of these stories was devastating. School districts began dropping out of the program and participation fell drastically. Then federal authorities became interested, including the IRS, FBI and the SEC. Eventually, two of the state's largest urban school districts were informed that they had misused their education bonds and owed the IRS large sums. Stifel finally pulled out of the state entirely. In 1996, a onetime leading Stifel official, Bob Cochran, was convicted in federal court of misdeeds connected with the education bonds program, although a year later an appeals court reversed Cochran's conviction. Most noteworthy here is the initiative from within the state, since it was The Daily Oklahoman that led the way, not federal officials. It is true that federal law enforcement authorities did reinforce the work of the reporters. State law enforcement officials never did contribute much. All in all, this state newspaper deserves much credit for leading reform efforts from within. 
In 1991 investigative reporting by the state's leading newspaper, the Daily Oklahoman, averted a potentially major scandal based on the misuse of bonds for education purposes. That education bonds could be a hazard if not properly handled became apparent when the state's two largest school districts found themselves charged by the IRS with back taxes amounting in each case to several hundred thousand dollars.
  The metro districts had been using education bonds not as a legitimate supplement to school spending but as a means of making money via interest accrued on the bonds. Initially the education bond program was hugely popular, with many school districts large and small signing on. However, the investigative reports created skepticism and withdrawals. Had these districts not dropped out of the program, they could have been held liable by the IRS just as the metro districts had been. The investigative reporting by the Oklahoman disrupted the bond scam. Federal intervention, apart from the potential IRS threat, was minimal.
 Harry Holloway, of the Oklahoma Historical Society