Battles between Sheriff, Claremore cops and DA will rage everywhere except in Rogers County
By JOHN M. WYLIE II, Editor
A News Analysis
Historians will call the Rogers County War of 2013 a scorched-earth struggle to control the criminal justice system even though the bombs and bullets flew in Oklahoma City, Bristow, Tulsa and just about every place else in Oklahoma except the territory named for Clem Rogers.
The ugly image of a county unable to handle its own problems has emerged after months of turmoil.
The whirlwind week that brought it to a head began last Tuesday, Oct. 15, when a Tulsa judge threw out local grand jury proceedings due to illegal petition language. It ended when the whole mess was dumped in the lap of the multi-county grand jury in Oklahoma City.
Meanwhile, civil lawsuits continued in federal court in Tulsa (where a Claremore cop is suing the DA and key staff members for libel and slander) and in Creek County District Court in Bristow (where a libel and slander lawsuit filed by the DA and key aides against the Claremore Progress and three employees was moved).
Last Wednesday, District Attorney Janice Steidley and two top aides sued all six grand jury petitioners plus at least two dozen as-yet unnamed petition promoters for libel and slander in Rogers County District Court.
When District Judge Dynda Post got the case, she immediately requested that it be reassigned. That virtually guarantees that it, too, will wind up in some other county.
Then Steidley asked District Judge Terry McBride to convene a grand jury investigation of her office, her accusers, and other issues.
Friday, Attorney General Scott Pruitt had had enough and ordered the multi-county grand jury to try to extinguish the raging inferno by investigating the issues raised by all sides.
Steidley said she had asked Judge McBride the day before to impanel a grand jury that would investigateRogersCountypublic officers, including her office, as authorized by the Oklahoma Constitution.
“We decided to request this grand jury to shine light on all parties involved and let the truth come out. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. We want a grand jury investigation that is lawful and looking into real issues, not one that is supported by baseless accusations and slander in an attempt to forward political motivations and agendas.
“We want to show the people of Rogers County that their District Attorney’s Office is one they can have confidence in,” she said.
It was a few hours after Steidley made her statement that Pruitt said he was turning all the issues over to the multi-county grand jury.
He said it also would probe allegations brought by Sheriff Scott Walton, Claremore Police Investigator John Singer and four others who had filed and circulated a grand jury petition against the District Attorney, three top aides and two county commissioners.
Petitioners had gathered 6,994 valid signatures of registered voters, more than enough to convene a grand jury.
However, at the Oct. 15 hearing Tulsa County District Judge Jefferson D. Sellers threw out the grand jury proceeding because the signatures were illegally gathered using a form and language which had not been reviewed or approved by the court.
The allegations against Steidley, her aides, and County Commissioners Kirt Thacker and Mike Helm had included witness tampering, oppression in office, and bid splitting.
All six have denied any wrongdoing and said they would welcome an investigation.
Bryce Lair, First Assistant District Attorney, said the DA’s office had not yet compiled a list of the individuals, offices and issues it wants investigated, although he said it wants and will welcome having its own office investigated.
However, the half-million dollar lawsuit Steidley, Lair and civil assistant David Iski filed Oct. 16 against Walton, Singer and the other four petitioners likely provides clues.
The lawsuit accuses the petitioners of fabricating their allegations, dumping evidence of how signatures were gathered, and using the grand jury process to try to enrich Singer in the civil lawsuit he has filed in federal court.
All three district judges in the 12th Judicial District–Post, McBride and Dwayne Steidley–have endorsed the multicounty grand jury approach, saying in a joint statement, “The judges agree that the Hon. Jefferson Sellers was correct in his ruling dismissing the recent grand jury petition in accordance with the law; however, there are a significant number of Rogers County citizens who desire that a grand jury investigate various allegations directed at Rogers County government and Rogers County law enforcement.
“We have explored the options available and believe that a grand jury is the best hope of resolving the issues and restoring some normalcy to the operation of county government and the criminal justice system inRogersCounty.”
Lair said the DA’s office is pleased with the latest developments.
“We are ready to clear the air,” he said. “We know Scott Pruitt’s office will do a fair and objective job.”
“As the chief legal officer ofOklahoma, one of my top priorities is to protect the integrity of our legal system,” Pruitt said. “For our system of justice to work properly, people must have confidence in the process.
“I’m confident the multicounty grand jury investigation will uncover the facts, help resolve the issues inRogersCounty, and restore Oklahomans’ confidence in the legal system.”
Pruitt noted that any action recommended by the grand jury including trial of criminal charges or prosecution of a recommended ouster from office would take place in Rogers County.
That would finally bring at least part of the war back home, but it could take a long time.
The situation gives a whole new meaning to the age-old question children have asked their fathers about military service:
“What did you do in the war, Daddy?”
In this case, the answer will come from lawyers, cops and journalists who all reply, “Mostly I spent a lot of time driving around to different places in Oklahoma.”
And the historians will write, “How did it get so out of hand that the people most affected lost the ability to fix it on home soil?”