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WorldCom Puts Him in the Spotlight

Oklahoma Atty. Gen. Drew Edmondson's charges have drawn praise from states. Critics point to SBC ties.

August 30, 2003|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY — Speaking in measured tones in his cluttered ground-floor office, state Atty. Gen. William "Drew" Edmondson doesn't sound like someone itching to take on the political establishment in Washington.

His background doesn't suggest it, either. His grandfather was a county commissioner. His father was a congressman. His uncle was the youngest governor in Oklahoma history and later served in the U.S. Senate. Edmondson's own career is a study in calculated political ascension, from the Oklahoma Legislature to Muskogee County district attorney to an unprecedented third term as the state's highest law enforcement official.

This week, he took a radical turn for someone who has long followed political conventions, and hijacked a high-profile federal investigation into one of the country's biggest corporate accounting scandals.

By filing the first criminal charges Wednesday against telecommunications giant WorldCom Inc. and its deposed chief executive, Bernard J. Ebbers, Edmondson single-handedly threw into doubt the work of Justice Department prosecutors who want to punish the people responsible for understating expenses by $11 billion.

He also garnered more media attention in a single day than he did during the two years he worked on the $200-billion settlement with U.S. tobacco firms.

The securities fraud charges are among the first by a state against Wall Street's most wanted, the men who ran WorldCom, Enron Corp. and other firms felled by accounting scandals. New York has charged some former executives of Tyco International Ltd., and federal authorities filed a civil action against the company.

Ashburn, Va.-based WorldCom pledged to cooperate with Oklahoma authorities.

U.S. prosecutors, who have charged five of Ebbers' underlings and won four guilty pleas, are furious that the Oklahoma case might jeopardize their prosecutions. In addition to Ebbers, Edmondson charged the four who are cooperating with the federal government, and they might be afraid to testify about their illegal activity in a federal trial, fearing they would bolster the state case against them.

Some financial commentators and political opponents portray Edmondson as an ambitious bumpkin -- or worse, a public official doing the bidding of a campaign contributor, SBC Communications Inc., a phone company looking to keep rival WorldCom mired in bankruptcy.

Many others, including some of Edmondson's courtroom foes, defend him as a fair, thoughtful and straightforward man who was simply unable to sit tight in the face of massive fraud at WorldCom and what he saw as the foot-dragging of federal investigators.

"He's not a wild and crazy guy," said Andy Coates, dean of the University of Oklahoma's law school. "He's very sound in his judgments."

Edmondson, a 56-year-old Democrat with a teaching degree who has the look and demeanor of a high school guidance counselor, says he came to his decision gradually, after studying WorldCom with officials from California and other states who are now cheering his prosecution from the sidelines.

"He's not your average elected official," said Washington state Atty. Gen. Christine Gregoire, who led Edmondson and half a dozen other state attorneys general in the tobacco settlement talks. "He's an individual who will always do what he considers to be the right things, no matter the personal or political consequences."

Edmondson's interest in public service goes back to his childhood, when he attended "political meetings and bean-dip dinners" with his father, he recalled in an interview.

"My brothers would go out of family obligation," he said, "but I actually enjoyed it."

His trust in government -- especially the federal government -- began to erode during the Vietnam War, when he served in the Navy and ferried secret messages to commanders on an air base. Reading that traffic, he said, "it became obvious we were in places where we said we weren't."

That "was one of a number of life circumstances that make me not trust immediately what we get told by the government."

As attorney general, Edmondson has often argued against federal intervention into state matters. In 2000, he filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting New Jersey's attempt to stop the Boy Scouts of America from discriminating against gay troop leaders -- a position that didn't endear him to his socially conservative constituents.

Edmondson has scored political points with his ardent and effective support of the death penalty, which is popular in the state. After the bombing of the city's federal building that killed 168 people, he helped push a law through Congress that streamlined the lengthy appeals process in death row cases.

Oklahoma now executes more criminals per capita than any other state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. Unlike his counterparts in some other states, however, Edmondson voluntarily authorizes DNA testing of convicts at state expense when there is a real question of guilt.

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