Claremore Daily Progress

October 17, 2013

Voice of petition signers wrongly silenced

Bailey Dabney
Publisher

CLAREMORE —

Who will hear the collective voice of the 6,994 citizen signers of the Rogers County Grand Jury petition?
Is it you, Judge Jefferson Sellers?
Is it you, Attorney General Scott Pruitt?
Is it you, Oklahoma Supreme Court?
If we live under a government of the people, by the people and for the people -- as Abraham Lincoln famously declared in the Gettysburg Address -- then one of the above needs to impanel the grand jury promptly to investigate the serious allegations contained in the petition.
Judge Sellers’ decision Tuesday to silence the nearly 7,000 signers who called for the grand jury inquiry runs afoul of the people’s First Amendment right to petition their government for a redress of grievances. 
It also appears contrary to the liberal  intent of Oklahoma’s petition laws giving registered voters the benefit of the doubt even if they omit or fail to list their addresses when signing on to a petition.
The judge said the petition sponsors, including three law enforcement officials,  obtained the 6,994 registered voter signatures for a grand jury on unauthorized signature pages because each page did not repeat the exact wording of the court-approved petition form.
Never mind that the exact wording was contained on the cover of the manila envelope containing the signature pages, and that the purpose of the petition campaign was summarized on each page and also well known throughout the county due to extensive media coverage.
Sellers, a district judge from Tulsa County, acknowledged he wasn’t absolutely certain his ruling would hold up on appeal, and urged the petition sponsors to challenge it in a higher court so the issue could be settled for sure.
Both the judge and the state attorney general can administratively impanel the grand jury, but if they decline to do so, then the Oklahoma Supreme Court should expedite an appeal of the ruling to toss out the signatures on a technicality. 
Petitioners have asked that the behavior and practices of six public officials, three of which are elected, be scrutinized by a grand jury. Fourteen specific questions have been raised, including allegations of threats, fraud, wire tapping and false reporting of criminal activity.
Six thousand nine hundred ninety-four signatures represent a very large number. In fact it is 40 percent more signatures than would be needed to impanel a grand Jury in Tulsa County. It is 40 percent more than the number necessary to impanel a Grand Jury in Oklahoma County.
Six thousand nine hundred ninety-four signatures is a number so large that it cannot be ignored because of an uncertain legal technicality. 
Sponsors said they were not aware of the need to repeat the exact wording of the petition on each of the 600-plus signature pages.  The election board did not know it was necessary. Even the clerk of the court did not know it was necessary. 
The issue didn’t surface until last Friday when the outside attorney for petition targets District Attorney Janice Steidley and two of her assistants submitted a motion citing the technicality as the reason to reject the petition’s call for a grand jury investigation.
Oddly, the district attorney normally serves as the legal counsel for both the election board and the court clerk.  
If the case had not involved the DA’s office would Steidley’s staff  have instructed the court clerk to make sure the petition form and its individual signature pages were approved by the court? It's a question worth asking.
Whatever the case, there’s a dark cloud hanging over Rogers County. The conflict between the district attorney’s office and the county’s law enforcement community has only been intensified by the ruling to dismiss the grand jury petition and the questions it raised. 
The will of 6,944 registered voters is to put those questions before a grand jury to answer. The sooner that happens the better off everybody will be.
Bailey Dabney is publisher of the Claremore Daily Progress.