OKLAHOMA CITY -- No one has ever accused Gov. David Walters (D) of neglecting to work a crowd. The day after he pleaded guilty to violating state election laws, ending both a three-year probe of campaign finances and perhaps his political career, Walters told business leaders that he had developed a fear of reading his morning newspaper.
"I have to open that paper with a stick," he said. "I never know what it's going to say."
The speech in Norman last week earned Walters two standing ovations. But the laughs have been overwhelmed by louder cries that the governor, once seen as a shining young hope in a state badly in need of an image overhaul, should shut up and resign.
"What can I say except that he's dead meat?" asked Frosty Troy, 60, editor of the feisty, semimonthly Oklahoma Observer, who allowed that he voted for Walters in 1990 but soon grew disenchanted. "He's disgraced his name. He's disgraced his family. He's disgraced the state. It's over."
But Walters, 41, insists that he will never resign, even as members of the grand jury who indicted him, state legislators who once supported him and other residents of this often scandal-plagued state wonder aloud whether he understands the extent of his misdeeds.
"He admitted that he had lied to the people of Oklahoma and . . . had taken illegal contributions," said Mike Roark, a grand juror from Tulsa. "I would just advise perhaps the governor and his counsel to kind of sit back and take a little more humble approach about this thing."
For three years, Oklahomans have been transfixed by the tribulations of this farm boy from Canute, who received an MBA degree from Harvard University, wrested the governorship after successes in real estate and was cited by President Clinton for "the intellect, intelligence and vision he brings to the table."
Throughout, Walters has engaged in an epic feud with the leading newspaper in this capital city, the conservative Daily Oklahoman, which has aggressively pursued him. In December 1991, Walters's troubled son, Shaun, 20, killed himself with an overdose of antidepressants -- a decision linked, many people said, to news coverage of his arrest for possession of drug paraphernalia.
In his State of the State address in February 1992, Walters accused "insensitive public officials" and a "reckless media" of driving his son to suicide.
Allegations about Walters's campaign finances were turned over 15 months ago to state Attorney General Susan Loving, a Walters appointee, and Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy after the FBI found no violations of federal law.
Two weeks ago, the Daily Oklahoman reported that Walters had been named in a sealed indictment in September on charges that he accepted individual contributions in excess of the $5,000 allowed by state law. The governor said he hoped the newspaper had "great libel attorneys."
But nine days ago, after hours of high-level talks, Walters pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of violating the state Campaign Compliance and Ethical Standards Act. In exchange, Loving and Macy agreed to drop eight felony counts of conspiracy and other charges. Walters received a one-year deferred sentence and was ordered to empty his campaign funds, paying about $135,000 to the state Ethics Commission.
Although the conviction involves Walters's acceptance of $13,500 in excess contributions from Norman attorney Richard Bell, Loving estimated that excess contributions detailed in the 17 unsealed indictments amounted to about $150,000.
Initially, the plea bargain drew fire from politicians and private citizens for allowing Walters to save face and his job. Pat Weldon, a grand juror and retired sheriff from Boise City, compared the arrangement to trading "eight thoroughbreds for a Shetland pony." But Loving argued that prosecutors chose the wiser course.
"We indicted and convicted a sitting governor of knowingly and willingly accepting an over-contribution to his 1990 campaign," she said. "There's been a lot of public concern that the plea agreement dropped the felonies, and that's a legitimate concern. . . . I'm not that happy about it either. But I think as the public begins to understand that our options were to accept his agreement now, or wait possibly a year and a half from now for a trial that might not result in a conviction, we did what we had to do."
In a final report issued this week, the grand jury encouraged "Oklahomans to focus their anger accurately . . . at the perpetrators who made this entire process necessary."
Formal charges have been brought against officeholders at least 15 times in Oklahoma history. In the early 1980s, a kickback scheme involving 60 of the state's 77 counties and their leading business suppliers resulted in 220 criminal convictions. Currently, the state treasurer's office is under investigation for alleged mishandling of $7 million.
To Walters's supporters, the long-running controversy has obscured his progress in leading the state. He produced a balanced budget with no tax increases for three years while increasing education funding by 25 percent, led an effort that increased child immunization rates by 14 percent and vigorously recruited new employers after the energy and real estate busts of the late 1980s had shattered the economy. His major current project is a $1.6 billion proposal for improving roads.
State Democratic Chairman Mike Turpen, a former attorney general, said Walters should be allowed "to govern without this big cloud of suspicion hanging over his head. . . . We're not talking about taxpayers' money here. It was private individuals making private contributions in a campaign context.
"If people want to hold candidates more and more accountable, candidates in the future are going to have to have an accountant on staff to look behind the face of every contribution."
But Walters's critics said the case was never that of a preoccupied politician too busy to know what was going on with his campaign fund. They cited testimony that he personally urged contributors to finance a last-minute media blitz.
"To this day, he's in denial," Troy said. "He has yet to really apologize in plain Okie-speak. No one wants to hear this editorial 'we' he keeps tossing out. Nobody wants to hear 'our' campaign. They want to hear, 'I'm sorry.' "