Tuesday’s Republican Primary for District Attorney of Rogers, Craig and Mayes counties is, by far, the most critical race on the ballot. The prolonged clash between the DA’s office and local law enforcement agencies has disrupted the once harmonious local justice system.
The solution is a fresh start. And the person best qualified to bring that about is Claremore City Attorney Matt Ballard. His performance in office and as a candidate has demonstrated a clear-eyed understanding of the conflict, and how to mend it.
Other GOP candidates in the race are incumbent Janice Steidley and former special District Judge Erin Oquin. Both have waged campaigns that speak to their experience but, also, to why they would not be right for the job at hand.
Steidley has made the DA’s office ground zero in the conflict with police authorities. It got so bad at one point that nine law enforcement agencies requested an inquiry of her office due to dissatisfaction with the handling of criminal cases.
More than 7,000 Rogers County citizens later signed a petition for a local grand jury investigation. A judge nullified the signatures on technical grounds but the petition’s concerns were quickly taken up by the state multicounty grand jury.
The grand jury’s preliminary report said there was insufficient evidence to bring indictments against Steidley and her assistants on nine criminal accusations contained in the petition. But jurors also found that Steidley “at times displayed poor judgment and unprofessional behavior,” contributing to dysfunction between law enforcement officials and the DA’s office - dysfunction jurors determined “ harmful to the residents” of Rogers County.
Oquin was also the subject of a controversy, though not one that reached the level of the district attorney-law enforcement conflict. She unceremoniously lost her job last August after 10 years on the bench. The judges of the Northeast Administrative District of Oklahoma gave no reason for removing her. But statements that she intended to run for district attorney several months before the filing deadline doubtless contributed to the decision.
Steidley’s camp has criticized both Oquin and Ballard for their perceived roles in the call for an investigation of the district attorney’s office. Despite the attacks, Oquin and Ballard remained focused on the issues at hand, pledging to repair the broken relationships of the current administration.
Should DA Steidley prevail in Tuesday’s election, there is no reasonable conclusion to draw other than that the debilitating dysfunction between her office and law enforcement community will continue indefinitely if she goes on to defeat the unopposed Democratic candidate for DA, attorney Robert Post. There’s also the matter of the critical role the district attorney plays in providing legal counsel to the county commissioners. Serious issues noted by the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector could present several challenges in the next term. Three reports issued this year found some commissioners used county equipment for personal use, solicited vendors for gifts, split purchases to avoid competitive bidding, submitted fictitious invoices, back-dated records, accepted illegal campaign contributions and misused millions in federal FEMA funds.
Legal advice given by the district attorney to county officials is just as important as the DA’s responsibilities as the county’s chief prosecutor. Without the appropriate guidance, citizens could see a repeat of the $32.5 million judgment lost in the Material Services case and consequently an increase in their taxes. Voters should take the time and effort necessary to weigh the experience and qualifications of the candidates with the challenges facing the district attorney’s office.
Each candidate brings experience: Steidley’s is that of an incumbent. Oquin was a special judge in criminal, juvenile and family courts. Ballard was a prosecutor in Oklahoma County and the city attorney in Claremore.
The choice for me comes down to the candidate that can heal the divide between the DA’s office and law enforcement; the candidate who can reign in the rogue elements of Rogers County government; the candidate who has the temperament to disagree with law enforcement when necessary and back them when appropriate; the candidate who will honestly prosecute the guilty, and be fair to the unjustly accused.
My choice to accomplish all of that is Matt Ballard. I have argued with Ballard more than once. In each case I found his professionalism to be exemplary. His understanding of both civil and criminal matters and experience with city and county government give him the best chance to succeed in healing the justice system’s wounds.
Bailey Dabney is publisher of the Claremore Daily Progress.