Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman.

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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A school board race in Wilburton that required a do-over because of ineligible voting has now been rocked by allegations of attempted vote-buying.

The election, to fill a seat vacated mid-term, was originally held Feb. 12. The three candidates for the office were Lance G. Mathis, Maryellen Mooney, and Katina Shrum. Mathis was a de facto incumbent since he had been appointed to fill the vacancy until the special election was conducted.

When the results were tallied Feb. 12, Mathis won by a margin of just three votes, receiving 241 votes to 238 cast for Mooney. But there was one problem.

“The election couldn’t be verified,” said Latimer County Election Board Secretary Barbara Helmert.

While Mathis received more votes, it was determined that “there were three people who had voted who were not in the school district that they voted in,” Helmert said.

“Our precinct officials should have caught that, but we’re all human,” Helmert said. “So for the election, a winner could not be determined.”

Because the number of ineligible voters equaled the margin of victory, when Mooney challenged the results the outcome was tossed and the race was rescheduled for April 2. When the votes were counted in that do-over election, Mooney prevailed, receiving 456 votes to 427 cast for Mathis.

But that didn’t end controversy over the school board election. In a police report filed on June 20, Alexis Bone, age 18, alleged that Wilburton Superintendent Beatrice Butler attempted to force her to vote for Mathis in the school board election.

The report by Wilburton police officer Bobby Stringer stated that Bone claimed the superintendent “demanded that she fill out a voter’s registration form and tried to talk Alexis into voting for Lance Mathis.”

“Alexis told me that Beatrice had previously withheld her diploma because of the ordeal, but she later received her diploma,” Stringer wrote.

The police report states that Bone alleged Butler pulled her out of class on March 6 to fill out a voter registration form, although Bone said she had previously filled out a voter registration form, and the superintendent then told her “who she wanted her to vote for and she tried to say that if Alexis voted for Lance Mathis, then she would reward her if he stayed in the school board.”

Oklahoma law states, “Any person who offers, solicits or accepts something of value intended to directly or indirectly influence the vote of the person soliciting or accepting same shall be deemed guilty of a felony.”

Bone repeated her claims in a letter sent to the Oklahoma State Election Board. In that letter, Bone wrote that Butler pulled her “out of service learning” on March 6 and “tried to make me fill out a registration form out to be able to vote.” When Bone refused to fill out the form, she said Butler “got mad” and then “started to tell me who she wanted me to vote for and tried to say that if I voted for Lance Mathis, then she would reward us if he stayed in the school board.”

When subsequently discussing the event with friends, Bone said she “learned that I wasn’t the only one that had the same problem.”

Bone wrote that another student, Christian Dehart, had a similar story and claimed the superintendent told him that if he did not register and then vote for Mathis “then she was going to put him in ISS” and made sure “that he didn’t graduate.”

ISS appears to refer to “in school suspension.”

Bone said another student, Chris Phipps, was told “that he was going to lose his job if he didn’t register to vote, and vote for Lance Mathis.”

In her letter to the Oklahoma Election Board, Bone said Dehart and Phipps “both work for the Arkansas Railroad company in Wilburton, Oklahoma. And their boss Patricia Donley, is on the school board.”

State records show that both Bone and Dehart registered to vote on March 12. Phipps registered to vote on Aug. 6, 2018. Records indicate that Bone voted in the April 2 election.

The police report states that when law enforcement contacted Phipps and Dehart, they denied being bribed or pressured to vote for Mathis, but both said Butler had made them fill out voter registration forms. According to the police report, Dehart said that when he tried to fill out a voter’s registration form at Butler’s request, “he messed up on part of it so Beatrice told him to leave it in her office and she would fill it out for him.”

In various statements during the campaign, Mooney indicated she believed the school board needed to exercise better oversight of the school district.

In video of a March 28 forum, posted on her candidate Facebook page, Mooney said, “When I signed up to run in December, and started talking with people, I realized that we had some problems. There was unrest in the community. There was unrest in the staff—at the elementary school, especially. So then I thought, well, maybe I need to be there.”

During that forum, she noted the race had been heated.

“I never wanted it to be this contentious, but it has been,” Mooney said. “So if I get elected, there’s a lot of stuff that has to be sorted out, first thing, and there’s a lot of bridges to be patched up.”

At another point, Mooney said officials needed to emphasize children’s learning when making the budget decisions.

“We can’t make anything top heavy,” Mooney said. “And I think that happens all too often that something’s top heavy.”

She made similar comments in a statement posted on her Facebook page.

“Since my campaign started and I began talking to people, all I have heard is that people want change on the board,” Mooney said. “The number of voters in the February 12 election is a very good indication of that.”

In many Oklahoma school board races, turnout is anemic. In contrast, the Wilburton school board race attracted 501 voters on Feb. 12 and then 893 on April 2. That compares with 1,594 votes cast for governor in those same Wilburton precincts during the November 2018 general election.

In a phone interview, Mooney said she was not satisfied with the status quo.

“I think there are some changes that need to be made across-the-board in the way that the school is going,” Mooney said.

She described the school board as “the overall bosses of the school and the superintendent is hired by them to run the school.”

When contacted by phone, Butler declined to comment on the allegations and referred questions to John Moyer, an attorney with the Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold law firm that represents the district. When contacted, Moyer said the district would have nothing to say until the investigation was completed.

The Wilburton Police Department has asked the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation for assistance. When asked if she was aware of any allegations of vote-buying prior to the police report, Mooney said she could not comment on that topic since “that’s an ongoing investigation.”

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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