McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

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April 10, 2014

Incumbent commissioner files protest

McALESTER — The race is on for the District 1 Pittsburg County commissioner’s seat and a contest against one of the candidates has already been filed.

The District 1 seat has been held by Gene Rogers, 71, for almost 16 years.

Now Rogers’ seat is set to be filled in a June 24 election.

On Wednesday Rogers, who is running for reelection, filed a Petition for Contest of Candidacy against his opponent, William “Bill” Webber.

Webber is a former commissioner who held the District 1 seat from 1983 until 1998, when he lost re-election.

Public records show Webber, 71, filed his Declaration of Candidacy on Wednesday, the same day Rogers filed the petition to contest his candidacy. The protest cites a 1998 felony conviction for Webber.

On Thursday, Webber told the News-Capital he wasn’t aware he had been convicted of a felony.

“I was found guilty for using a prisoner on my property but I was told it was a misdemeanor,” Webber said.

According to court documents, Webber was found guilty of a felony in 1999 by a Pittsburg

County jury.

Court records reveal Webber was convicted on one of six counts involving the use of inmate labor on his personal property near Hartshorne.

Webber was fined $1,000 and was not required to serve jail time for using an inmate to work cattle on his private property, according to court records. Two other counts were dismissed and he was acquitted of the remaining three charges, court records state.

Webber had been indicted by a multi-county grand jury in 1997 on nine counts, including four counts of misusing prison labor, four counts of embezzlement and one count of urging one of his workers to lie to the grand jury.

Two counts were dismissed after Webber’s preliminary hearing, and another was dropped because the witness had left prison and could not be located; less than half the original charges remained by the time the case was heard by the jury, according to news accounts at the time.

Rogers said this isn’t the first time he’s had to contest Webber’s candidacy.

“He ran before in 2006 and we had to have a hearing on the matter with the district attorney,” Rogers said. “Nothing’s changed; he still can’t run based on the state law that says he is not eligible to be candidate because he was convicted of a felony.”

Meanwhile, public records show Webber swore he had not been convicted of a felony, according to his Declaration of Candidacy filed at the Pittsburg County Election Board. The form has a box to check “yes” or “no” if the candidate has been found guilty of a misdemeanor involving embezzlement or of a felony in the state of Oklahoma or any other state.

Pittsburg County Election Board Secretary Cathy Thornton says she explained the question to Webber when he filed for candidacy.

“As with all candidates who came in to file, I pointed out that there was a request for information on the form concerning criminal history, Thornton said.

“And all the candidates marked no.”

A hearing on the Petition to Contest against Webber is set for 3 p.m. on April 22 at the Pittsburg County Courthouse.

Webber said he’s ready for the hearing.

“I’ll answer all their questions but I don’t know what will happen,” Webber said.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”

Contact Jeanne LeFlore at jleflore@mcalesternews.com.

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