Investigation: Sheriff paid outside attorneys $700k from jail fund to defend civil rights suits
By ZIVA BRANSTETTER and KEVIN CANFIELD
The Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office has paid more than $700,000 from the jail tax fund during the past four years to outside law firms to defend an avalanche of civil rights lawsuits against the sheriff and his employees, an investigation by The Frontier has found.
The expenditures may not even be allowed under state law, which says sheriffs must receive approval from the Attorney General’s Office to hire attorneys. That law says payments for attorneys’ fees must be made from “unrestricted funds” — which the jail fund is not — and only in cases where the district attorney’s office has a conflict of interest.
County officials point to another law which they say supports the sheriff’s ability to hire outside attorneys.
It’s also unclear whether the legal fees should be considered jail “operating” costs, under the ballot language voters approved in 1995 to build and operate the David L. Moss jail.
Since 2009, more than 20 civil rights lawsuits have been filed against the sheriff’s office or its employees regarding problems in the jail. Half of those lawsuits remain pending, records show.
The funds went to defend the sheriff against suits alleging that black employees were harassed and denied promotions and that black prisoners were assaulted in the jail by staff members. Lawsuits were also filed on behalf of five inmates who died after they allegedly didn’t receive proper medical care at the jail.
Nearly all of the $700,000 in legal fees went to attorneys at two Tulsa law firms: McAfee & Taft and Brewster & De Angelis. About $150,000 in payments to outside attorneys came from other accounts controlled by the sheriff, adding up to a total of about $850,000 from all funds since 2012, an analysis by The Frontier shows.
Both law firms have deep connections to Sheriff Stanley Glanz.
Attorney Reuben Davis has been a reserve deputy for Glanz since the inaugural class of reserves in 1991. Davis, formerly with McAfee & Taft, now works at another Tulsa law firm.
Davis is also a sheriff’s appraiser, a patronage job appraising foreclosed properties sold at sheriff’s auctions. According to his Linked In profile, Davis, 71, is also president of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Association and a member of the sheriff’s SWAT team.
Attorney Clark Brewster, of Brewster & De Angelis, served as Glanz’s campaign manager in 1988 and has done legal work for the sheriff for many years. Two of Brewster’s relatives are also sheriff’s appraisers, records show.
He currently represents Robert Bates, a Tulsa County reserve deputy charged with second-degree manslaughter in the April 2 shooting death of Eric Harris during a gun sting.
Bates also managed Glanz’s 2012 re-election campaign and donated automobiles and surveillance gear to the violent crimes task force on which he served.
Brewster said his firm charges a far lower rate to the county than it would charge a private business. He said he defends the Sheriff’s Office in the federal lawsuits to ensure taxpayers don’t end up paying a large legal judgment, as happened to the city of Tulsa when a wrongfully convicted man won a $14.5 million judgment.
Sheriff: OK to use jail tax for legal fees
In an interview with The Frontier, Glanz said outside legal services used to defend lawsuits arising from the operation of the jail are paid for through the jail operating account.
About 85 percent of the funds in that account come from the quarter-cent jail tax approved by voters in 1995. The remaining 15 percent comes from revenues raised by the Sheriff’s Office through fees as part of operating the jail.
“If a case involves the jail, then those funds should come from jail money,” Glanz said.
However a state law on the books for more than a decade appears to contradict Glanz’s assertion.
The 1998 law states: “Upon the recommendation of the Attorney General, the sheriff of any county shall have the authority to employ an attorney to represent the sheriff and the office of the sheriff in the performance of the official duties of that office. The authority to employ an attorney shall be limited to those situations or cases where the district attorney of the same county as the sheriff has been disqualified or removed from the case.“
Records do not indicate the district attorney’s office has been disqualified or removed from representing the Sheriff’s Office in any of the civil rights or employment discrimination lawsuits.
In an email, a spokesman for Attorney General Scott Pruitt said the law allowing sheriffs to hire outside attorneys “would only be applicable if the matter involved representation of the sheriff and the local district attorney had been disqualified or removed.”
“That doesn’t appear to be the case in Tulsa County, to the knowledge of the attorney general’s office. The attorney general’s office has not approved and is not aware of any request submitted by the Tulsa County sheriff for permission to employ outside counsel to represent the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office in lawsuits.”
Pruitt’s spokesman, Aaron Cooper, said the statement should not be represented as legal advice.
John David Luton, Tulsa County first assistant district attorney, said the DA’s office generally does not represent Glanz in federal civil rights cases, which require a specialized area of legal knowledge. Luton said he does not believe state law prohibits Glanz from hiring outside attorneys.
He said he believes the 1998 law only applies when the district attorney’s office is removed from representing the sheriff in a lawsuit.
County officials also point to another section of the law that states a sheriff has the authority to employ a general counsel “either in-house as a staff employee or through an outside law firm, to advise or represent” the office.
The statute goes on to say that the Board of County Commissioners shall approve all contracts for outside counsel, which records indicate is the practice in Tulsa County.
In addition to spending about $850,000 on outside attorneys from all accounts since 2012, Glanz employs a full-time general counsel. Glanz said he pays for his in-house attorney, Meredith Baker, and government affairs director Terry Simonson out of the sheriff’s cash fee account.
“The DA told me in case there is any confusion to pay for her salary and his (Simonson’s) out of my office,” he said.
However late last year, salaries for Simonson and Baker were being paid out of the jail fund, leading to criticism from Tulsa city councilors. Simonson is paid about $93,000 annually while Baker is paid more than $63,000.
At the time, Undersheriff Tim Albin told councilors Baker’s hiring was an effort to save taxpayers money by providing the sheriff with an in-house attorney for research and discovery work in preparation for jail-related litigation. Baker’s name is not mentioned as a lead defense attorney in the civil suits reviewed by The Frontier.
Meanwhile, legal costs paid by the Sheriff’s Office have ballooned, from $50,000 in 2012 to a projected $375,000 by the end of this fiscal year.
What constitutes appropriate use of the jail sales tax has been a central topic of discussion for the Tulsa County Criminal Justice Authority for more than a year. The authority, which oversees operation of the Tulsa Jail, has been struggling to find sufficient funding for the jail as the inmate population and costs have increased significantly.
Mayor Dewey Bartlett, who is an authority trustee, has been pushing the authority to get a better handle on jail finances and to play a larger role in overseeing how jail funds are spent.
Currently, the authority approves the Sheriff’s Office jail operating fund but has little oversight over day-to-day expenditures. Bartlett’s push for more scrutiny has come as the city and county negotiate a new jail agreement. The old one expired June 30.
The jail authority is chaired by a Tulsa County reserve deputy, Dan Witham, who was named “reserve deputy of the year” in 2013.
When voters approved funds to build the new jail in 1995, the ballot stated that the tax was for the purpose of “acquiring a site and erecting, furnishing, equipping, operating, maintaining, remodeling and repairing a County Jail and other detention facilities owned or operated by Tulsa County.”
The Frontier created a database of the jail tax expenditures using purchase orders posted on the county’s website since Jan. 1, 2012.
During weekly meetings, the Tulsa County Commission has approved the legal fees and other expenses from the jail fund in a laundry list of county purchase orders. Payments to attorneys are listed as “professional and technical services” rather than legal services and commissioners approve them along with hundreds of other purchase orders without discussion.
In addition to legal fees, the county paid $360 out of the jail fund last month to Shredders Inc., presumably to shred documents. That purchase is dated April 16.
Other payments included $1,500 to a CPA who is a reserve deputy and $750 to a California-based martial arts school.
The county’s official financial statement for fiscal year 2013 states the Tulsa County Criminal Justice Authority, which oversees the jail funds, “did not make any vehicle purchases during the year ended June 20, 2013.”
However, records show the Sheriff’s Office used the jail fund to buy three automobiles totaling nearly $100,000 during fiscal year 2013. It is unclear how much control the authority has over individual expenditures, since the cost is incurred by the Sheriff’s Office and approved by the county commission.
Suits allege racial slurs
Glanz and his employees have been represented by attorneys including Davis, Brewster, John Burkhardt and Scott Wood. Brewster’s firm has been paid about $400,000 out of the jail operating fund since 2012, while about $285,000 went to McAfee & Taft.
About $150,000 was paid to Wood’s law firm for representing deputies and other employees in legal trouble.
Records show the private attorneys have plenty of work to do for the sheriff’s office.
Since 2009, Glanz and his employees have been named in more than 20 federal civil lawsuits alleging racial discrimination against black employees and violation of prisoners’ civil rights. At least 10 of the lawsuits are still pending, records show.
Including legal fees, the county paid more than $1 million to settle six of the lawsuits filed by former employees of the Tulsa Jail. Each suit accused
Albin, who stepped down last week, of racially insensitive behavior aimed at the employees, who were black.
The plaintiffs say white detention officers routinely used racially offensive language, including racial slurs and jokes, in front of black employees. One former employee alleged Albin gave her a management book from the 1970s titled “Who’s Got the Monkey?” that white employees did not receive.
The lawsuits also allege brutal treatment of black inmates by sheriff’s employees, including Maj. Tom Huckeby. In an affidavit filed with one of the federal lawsuits, a former detention officer said she witnessed Huckeby enter the cells of black inmates and assault them.
The officer states Huckeby chose cells that were not fully covered by the jail’s cameras. Huckeby was later moved from the jail and promoted, records show.
Albin has not returned calls seeking comment for this story and Huckeby is on a month-long vacation from the Sheriff’s Office, officials said.
A 2009 internal affairs investigation concluded that Albin and Huckeby promoted an “atmosphere of intimidation” at the Sheriff’s Office related to favorable treatment for Bates.