The money trail in a merry-go-round of lawsuits among Rogers County officials gives new meaning to the adage “What comes around, goes around.”
Take a look at the Tulsa attorney representing the Rogers County District Attorney and two assistants in their libel lawsuit against the Rogers County Sheriff, a Claremore detective, the father of a young rape victim and others who criticized the DA by campaigning for a grand jury investigation.
That same attorney has now been authorized to bill the state for defending the Rogers County DA against a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the same Claremore detective. According to a report in the Claremore Daily Progress, public records do not indicate Tulsa attorney Joel L. Wohlgemuth is being paid from state funds to advance the DA’s separate libel lawsuit against the detective.
District Attorney Janice Steidley is also suing the Daily Progress for libel. Wohlgemuth is her attorney in that lawsuit. The Claremore newspaper said Wohlgemuth declined to say how he is being paid for his work in lawsuits Steidley has filed, or if he is providing pro bono (free) legal services.
So far, the Oklahoma Attorney General has authorized $90,000 to pay private attorneys to defend Steidley and assistant DA’s in a federal civil rights case filed by Claremore detective John Singer. The detective’s federal lawsuit claims Steidley damaged his career when she released information that implied he might not be a credible witness in some criminal cases.
Who is In, Who is Out and Who Pays?
After Wohlgemuth stepped in as Steidley’s counsel in the Singer case, two other Tulsa attorneys withdrew. The Attorney General has authorized $40,000 in legal costs for Wohlgemuth’s role in that case. Attorneys Clark Brewster and Guy Fortney had been authorized a larger share of the $90,000, but withdrew from the case two months after Wohlgemuth joined the case on Sept. 3, 2013, the Daily Progress reported.
Brewster’s law firm, Brewster & De Angelis P.L.L.C was paid $11,724.87 earlier in 2013, apparently prior to the latest round of state funding authorized to defend the DA against the detective’s federal civil rights claim, the Daily Progress reported.
Wohlgemuth joined the federal civil rights case as Steidley’s attorney a week after Singer – along with the Rogers County Sheriff – filed a petition seeking a grand jury investigation of Steidley, two assistant DA’s and members of the Rogers County Commission. Wohlgemuth also represented Steidley and the assistant DA’s when they persuaded a Tulsa judge to dismiss the petition on Oct. 15, 2013. Tulsa Judge Jefferson Sellers dismissed the petition for technical reasons.
(Read more about the technicalities of Oklahoma grand jury petitions here.)
Round and Round and Round it Goes
If the swirl of attorneys ponied up on countervailing cases among Rogers County officials is already making your head spin, try focusing your attention on something toward the middle of the merry-go-round. There’s more.
It would be an exceptionally rare event for any legislative body in the U.S. to allocate funding to launch lawsuits against critics of public employees. There are few, if any, circumstances where public money can legally be spent to file lawsuits against those who criticize public officials. And most elected officials tolerate robust criticism without striking back at peers, constituents and the media by way of libel lawsuits.
Are elected public officials paid so much they can afford to defend their reputation by retaining the same caliber of attorneys the state hires to represent attorneys employed by the state?
Most elected officials prefer to spend their private resources on electoral campaigns – although it’s not unheard of for elected officials to award public contracts to contractors who also assist the official’s public reputation or political interests.
Pro Bono Without Quid Pro Quo
Auditors in an August 2010 ethics investigation cited Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett for privately accepting pro bono legal services from an attorney for whose firm the mayor had previously approved contract extensions. The attorney? Joel Wohlgemuth.
“The Contractor had never requested or received anything from the City or from the Mayor in exchange for the pro bono legal services provided,” auditors noted.
In the 2010 Tulsa mayoral ethics violation, the city’s ethics rules prohibited the mayor from accepting free services from a contractor working for the city, but nothing prohibited the contractor from providing services — as long the private service does not comprise a bribe, or quid pro quo exchange.
The Daily Progress quoted Steidley as saying few attorneys would want to work as state attorneys if they had to pay for their own defense every time someone leveled a “frivolous compliant” against the state’s prosecutors. In most circumstances that benefit of public employment is limited to defending public officials against complaints.
Public officials routinely enjoy the benefit of public funding to defend them against allegations related to the way they conduct public business. In Rogers County District Attorney’s matters, that includes defending the DA and other attorneys against professional complaints to the Oklahoma Bar Association.
Investigation of those Bar complaints are usually confidential, and the public seldom learns of lawyers Bar problems unless an attorney is censured, suspended or disbarred. Media seldom reports how much money taxpayers spend defending lawyers working in the public sector against professional complaints. In Rogers County, the recent merry-go-round of lawsuits has piqued interest in how much taxpayer money goes to defend state attorneys against allegations of professional misconduct.
Office of Attorney General is on Whose Side?
The Daily Progress reported that Attorney General Scott Pruitt has authorized up to $20,000 for attorneys Charles Alden, Deborah Reheard and Sharisse O’Carroll to represent members of the DA’s office. According to the Claremore newspaper, Steidley and assistant DA’s Bryce Lair, David Iski and Tim Wantland. Reheard represents assistant DA Don Palick.
The attorney general’s office has staff attorneys working on the Rogers County DA’s side in a discrimination case filed by Eddie Griffin, a private investigator who formerly worked for the DA’s office. When Rogers County residents filed a petition calling for an investigation of the DA, the AG who controls the purse strings for defending District Attorneys against complaints said he would look at both sides of the coin.
After the Tulsa judge dismissed Rogers County resident’s petition for a grand jury, AG Pruitt announced he would bring various concerns raised among Rogers County officials and residents to the state’s multi-county grand jury. That panel h has sweeping investigative authority and the power to return criminal indictments.
“The investigation will include topics in the grand jury petition that was signed by more than 8,000 Rogers County residents as well as issues raised by District Attorney Janice Steidley,” Pruitt wrote in a press release.
Free Consultation: Oklahoma Attorneys
As attorneys who represent defendants with legal matters pending in Rogers County, Wirth Law Office shares similar concerns as those expressed from all quarters of the legal community – that allegations and counterallegations among officers of Rogers County courts could impair administration of justice in day-to-day legal matters.
Attorneys representing other attorneys, suing cops who are suing state’s attorneys can create matrices of conflicted interests. Those conflicts can affect other legal matters. If you have a legal matter pending in Rogers County, contact the Oklahoma attorneys at Wirth Law Office for a free, confidential consultation. Call today: 1 (918) 879-1681 or toll free at 1 (888) Wirth-Law. If you prefer written correspondence, you may submit a question through the form at the top right of this page.
Previous posts about the Rogers County controversies:
- How to Petition for a Grand Jury in Oklahoma
- Rogers County Sheriff Seeks Grand Jury Investigation of Rogers County District Attorney
- Rogers County DA Cites Silkwood, Accuses Sheriff of Malicious Libel
- Rogers County DA Pays Newspaper Publisher to Write Press Releases
- Rogers County DA: ‘I’m Little Ashamed of Some Law Enforcement’