Free Paul Jacob

Here’s a story that has been out there for months – a story that has not received the attention it deserves, a story I regret not having taken heed to earlier. It’s a travesty, really, the story of Paul Jacob and the Oklahoma 3:

One of our most cherished rights is to petition our government. If there’s a problem, we want our representatives to know so they can fix it. Imagine, however, if a top law enforcement official denied this right to citizens. Imagine he arrested them, threatening them with fines and imprisonment. Imagine it’s being driven by partisan politics. “Not in my America!”, you say? Let me introduce you to Paul Jacob and the Oklahoma 3.

Charged with a felony for exercising the right to petition the government? You’ve got it. Several months ago, the Wall Street Journal penned an editorial:

A veteran political activist is facing 10 years in prison and a hefty fine for attempting to petition government for redress of grievances. The latest news from Pakistan? No, this is happening in Oklahoma.

Last month Paul Jacob, the former head of U.S. Term Limits and current head of Citizens in Charge, was led out of an Oklahoma City courtroom in handcuffs after pleading not guilty to charges that he conspired to defraud the state. Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who’s overseeing this bizarre prosecution, has accused Mr. Jacob and two fellow petition organizers–Rick Carpenter of Oklahomans in Action and Susan Johnson of National Voter Outreach–of bringing out-of-state petition gatherers to Oklahoma to collect signatures.

In 2005 Mr. Carpenter, a Tulsan, launched a signature campaign to get a state-wide vote on a Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Tabor, as it is known, would cap the rate at which state government spending could increase. Mr. Jacob and Ms. Johnson were later brought on board to assist the effort. Not surprisingly, politicians and interest groups that favor big government have developed an intense dislike for Tabor spending limits, even though, like lawmaker term limits, they tend to be popular with voters.

This certainly proved to be the case in Oklahoma. Despite strong opposition from organized labor especially, Tabor petition advocates managed to gather some 300,000 signatures from registered voters, far more than the 219,000 needed to get the measure on the state ballot. Following a court challenge, however, the signatures were invalidated, not because the signers weren’t legitimate but because the Oklahoma Supreme Court determined that nonresidents of the state had collected signatures.

Ironically, it is perfectly legal for opponents of a petition to solicit money and manpower from out-of-state. And sure enough, public sector unions opposed to the Tabor initiative recruited people from outfits like the Oregon-based Voter Education Project, an offshoot of the AFL-CIO that specializes in countering signature drives. They also set up Web sites that advertised the location of signature-gathers and urged their members to harass them.

After the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled, Attorney General Edmondson could have let the matter die. Instead, he decided that the best use of scarce prosecutorial resources was to indict the petition campaigners. There’s reason to believe his decision has less to do with enforcing the law and more to do with warning activists to think twice before challenging political elites.

Mr. Jacob says petition organizers consulted with both the board of elections and the secretary of state’s office and were told that the residency rule could be met by anyone who moved to the state and declared himself a resident. In any case, that residency requirement is currently being challenged in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Mr. Edmondson might have at least waited for that outcome before pursuing felony counts against three people acting in good faith.

“The response is draconian and intended to scare and intimidate,” says Mr. Jacob, who also faces a fine of up to $25,000 if convicted. “To get 10 years in prison for following what you understand to be the rules of the petition drive would send a chilling message, not only throughout Oklahoma but throughout the country. That’s not what we want people to be thinking about when they consider whether to join a campaign to reform their government.”

The Democratic AG has denied that his actions are politically motivated, telling reporters that “we’re charged with enforcing the laws that are on the books.” But every prosecutor has to make judgment calls about how to deploy limited manpower. And in other areas, Mr. Edmondson has opted not to act while legal challenges are pending. Upon learning that the Supreme Court had agreed to review a challenge to the death penalty, for example, he recently requested that all executions be halted until the High Court speaks.

Like many other ambitious AGs, Mr. Edmondson has his eye on higher office, and indicting Tabor supporters will win him friends among the unions and liberal interest groups that can sway a fight for the Democratic nomination. With so many other real crimes to deter, his pursuit of citizen petitioners is not the kind of prosecutorial zeal we need.

Indeed. Go here to read Paul Jacob telling his own story. And spread the word. This kind of abuse of power to intimidate one’s political opponents should not be abided in these United States of America.

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