Trial begins in ex-Oklahoma zookeeper's murder-for-hire plot

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Testimony has begun in the attempted murder-for-hire trial of an ex-Oklahoma zookeeper and former candidate for governor.

Television station KFOR reports testimony began Monday in the trial of Joseph Maldonado-Passage after attorneys gave their opening statements.

Maldonado-Passage, who was indicted in September for allegedly trying to hire someone to kill the operator of a Florida-based animal sanctuary. He has pleaded not guilty.

He's also accused of killing five tigers in October 2017 and selling and offering to sell tiger cubs in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

Known as "Joe Exotic," Maldonado-Passage formerly operated a zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. He ran unsuccessfully for Oklahoma governor last year as a Libertarian candidate. He appeared on John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" when he was a 2016 write-in candidate for president.


Oklahoma moves to stop towns from fees, bans on plastic bags

By TIM TALLEY Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma lawmakers are considering legislation to prevent cities and towns from imposing a fee on single-use plastic and paper bags, a measure that officials in one Oklahoma community say encroaches on their search for an innovative way to protect the environment from the problems of carelessly discarded bags.

Oklahoma is one of at least five states where lawmakers are considering pre-empting local governments from taxing or banning plastic bags that are used to carry everything from groceries to clothing and cosmetics, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures' website. Eleven other states, including Texas, Arizona and Florida, already have pre-emptions laws in place, the NCSL said.

The Oklahoma measure was proposed as leaders in Norman, about 17 miles (28 kilometers) south of Oklahoma City, consider imposing a 5-cent fee on single-use plastic and paper bags as city leaders explore ways limit a leading source of litter and pollution.

Mayor-elect Breea Clark, a member of the Norman City Council, said the city leads the state in participation in curbside recycling but that recyclers statewide are refusing to accept single-use plastic bags because they get stuck in the recycling equipment.

"Now that we can't recycle them, we have to throw them away. They're everywhere," Clark said. She said many wind up in nearby Lake Thunderbird, the city's main source of drinking water.

Clark said imposing a fee on single-use bags offers "an effective way to change consumer habits." In Boulder, Colorado, where a 10-cent fee was imposed on plastic bags in 2012, city officials say plastic bag usage declined 70 percent.

But allowing hundreds of Oklahoma cities and towns adopt their own guidelines would create a hodgepodge of rules that would make buying food and beverages more costly and inconvenient and create compliance problems for manufacturers and retailers, said Sen. James Leewright, R-Bristow, the pre-emption bill's author.

"We've already started to see some municipalities do some taxation of different plastics," Leewright said. "I think that's very regressive on raising food costs."

Leewright's bill applies to bags, cups, packages, containers and bottles that are made of cloth, paper, plastic, cardboard, aluminum and glass. It's supported by the Oklahoma Coalition for Uniformity of Commerce, a coalition of 16 retail, manufacturing and business groups that claims municipal bag ordinances will reduce consumer choice and increase the cost of groceries and packaged food.

"All of that is really an added burden to our retailers," said Kiley Raper, CEO of the Oklahoma Retail Merchants Association.

"We're not opposing a fee or any kind of movement to be more environmentally responsible," Raper said. "We have a lot of members who operate in multiple localities across our state and being able to accommodate all of those different rules in different places is very, very complicated."

Mike Thornbrugh, manager of public and government affairs for QuikTrip, a Tulsa-based chain of convenience stores that operates 750 stores in 11 states, said lack of uniformity in local regulations "can make things a little more difficult."

"We just want uniformity," Thornbrugh said. "I get what Norman's doing. And I understand those who have environmental concerns — count us in. But if you're going to do it, do it uniformly."

Norman is the only community in Oklahoma that's considering a fee on single-use bags although plastic-bag pollution is a problem statewide, even in rural Oklahoma communities, said Mike Fina, executive director of the Oklahoma Municipal League.

"They joke that that's the new tumbleweed, they blow everywhere," Fina said. But lawmakers "have proposed nothing to help with the issue."

"They need to not pre-empt cities and let us do what we do best, and that is handle these kinds of issues," Fina said.

Sen. Mary Boren, who voted against the pre-emption bill, said Norman's program could be a statewide pilot project to achieve the uniformity merchants say they want.

"We're very aware of the environmental crisis we face," said Boren, D-Norman. "This bill would just chill that innovative spirit that we have."


Jobs program aims to employ panhandlers and homeless


TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Ben Morrison and his friend Tenesha Beasley were cold and hungry and homeless recently, so they stopped by In the Spirit Christian Church hoping to find a welcoming space and a warm meal.

What they got was a chance meeting with a 68-year-old former cocaine addict.

Call it their lucky day. Many years ago, in the throes of addiction, Gerald Keene spent a year homeless in New York City. These days, he drives the A Better Way van three days a week, offering panhandlers a day's work, a day's wage and a chance to turn their lives around.

The program, a collaboration between the city of Tulsa and Mental Health Association Oklahoma, will soon marks its first anniversary, the Tulsa World reported.

"He was just standing right there," Morrison, 49, said of Keene. "And he said, 'So, do you want to work?' And I said, 'Yeah,' and ran into God. He was always with me, but He showed me where to go."

Keene had come to the church expecting to pick up four people ready to work, but none showed up. Keene was ready to improvise — it's what he does every day, really — and so he gave his pitch to Morrison and Beasley.

It goes something like this: Come work with us for a day cleaning city parks, and we'll give you $65 and help you get back on your feet and into a long-term, sustainable job.

"What we are trying to do is, as the city grows, bring everyone along," Keene told a man inside a convenience store.

That's not as simple as it sounds. Many of the people he encounters are dealing with drug, alcohol and mental health issues. Some, like Beasley and Morrison, have spent time in prison.

In addition to helping A Better Way participants find jobs, Mental Health Association Oklahoma works with them to obtain proper identification, legal assistance and anything else that might help put them in a position to work.

"What we try to do is knock those barriers down," Keene told the balding, middle-aged man in the convenience store.

Keene is convincing, but this man wasn't buying it.

Another man got into the van at a QuikTrip and hopped out at another QuikTrip location, as Keene was inside arranging another pickup.

Turning the loss into an opportunity, Keene scanned the parking lot and eyed a man shuffling off the property. Larry Bowers was his name, a former sheet-metal worker who says he lives in an abandoned building.

"If I can make an honest dollar, I'll do it," Bowers said.

By 10 a.m., Keene had picked up his fourth and final worker, a 70-year-old man who called himself "O."

At Centennial Green, he handed each worker a work vest, a plastic bag, red gloves and a trash picker. And because the numbers were low recently, Keene didn't just supervise, he picked up trash.

"You will be surprised how many people start off on the wrong foot who get on the right foot if you are firm with them," Keene said. "But there's the street thing — they're going to try."

Sure enough, a few minutes later Keene had to tell one worker to get off his phone and back to work. It's all part of the dance Keene does every day. He's part cheerleader, part disciplinarian and part counselor.

A year in, his work is paying off, although A Better Way officials see room for improvement.

From March through January, 739 individuals accepted the program's offer to work. Of those, 672 said they were interested in receiving information about employment services. Two hundred twenty-nine of those individuals showed up for follow-up appointments, with 70 starting at least one shift of work at a local company. Of those, 47 are still employed.

About 50 companies have employed A Better Way participants since March.

Robert Harmon, employment specialist for A Better Way, said the organization's first-year goal was to have 25 percent of participants who signed up and appeared for their follow-up appointments land a job.

"Honestly, I didn't know what to think, if it was too high or too low," Harmon said. "But the longer we have gone, the more I realized, OK, that was a pretty reasonable goal.

"Like it to be more, but I believe, in the second year, we're going to have more things in place where companies are willing to hire a number (of participants) at one time."

Will one of those people be Ben Morrison?

In 1986, as quarterback for McLain High School, he led the Scots to the state championship. He was also the Tulsa World co-player of the year.

Now, after spending more than a dozen years in jail, he lives on the streets. He once made a good living cutting hair, and with that, he says, came too much of a good time.

Now he just wants to get his life in order.

"I'm ready to go to work and get some structure in my life," he said.