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November 17, 2013

Private lawyers benefit from DA’s legal clashes

Attorney General OKs thousands for outside counsel

CLAREMORE — Thousands of dollars in state funds have been authorized for payment to private lawyers to represent District Attorney Janice Steidley and her top assistants in legal complaints against them, public records show.

 The money was approved under a law that allows state agencies, including district attorney offices, to hire outside counsel in disputes where the Oklahoma Attorney General is unable to represent them due to possible conflict of interest or a lack of specialty legal experts.

Normally, state lawyers on the attorney general’s payroll represent state agencies and officials in lawsuits and other legal matters. Hiring private lawyers adds to the taxpayer cost of legal representation.

In the past three months, Attorney General Scott Pruitt authorized expenditures of up to $90,000 to DA Steidley and Assistant District Attorney Bryce Lair to hire private lawyers to defend them against a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Claremore Police Det. John Singer.

 A largest share of the money was earmarked for representation by lawyers Clark O. Brewster and Guy Fortney of the Brewster & DeAngelis law firm in Tulsa. Forty-thousand dollars was designated for lawyer Joel L. Wohlgemuth of  Norman, Wohlgemuth, Chandler & Jeter in Tulsa.

 The district attorney’s office said in its applications for the funds it preferred Brewster and Fortney to state lawyers because of outside counsel’s expertise in civil rights law and closer availability for meetings, depositions and general handling of the Singer case.

 It said additional representation was needed by Wohlgemuth because of the “complexity of litigation” as well as his nearness to Claremore for meetings and legal filings.

 Wohlgemuth has also been representing Steidley and her assistants in the libel suit they filed against The Daily Progress on March 28 and a separate suit filed Oct. 16 against the sponsors of the ill-fated grand jury petition for an investigation of the district attorney’s office.  

But none of the records released by the attorney general or the district attorney indicated applications were made for funds to pay for Wolhlgemuth’s services in those cases.

Wolhlgemuth has declined to say how he is being paid in the libel and grand jury lawsuits, whether privately from Steidley and her assistants or representing them pro bono, meaning voluntarily and without charging for his legal fees.

 The lawsuits against the newspaper and the grand jury petition sponsors were filed by the Steidley and her assistants in their capacity as officials of the district attorney’s office.

Wolhlgemuth officially joined Singer’s federal case as a paid private lawyer Sept. 3, filing notice of his representation on behalf of the DA and assistant DA Lair with U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gregory K. Frizzell.

 Eight weeks later, attorneys Brewster and Fortney withdrew from the case even though they had earlier renewed their contract with the district attorney’s office to extend to Aug. 23, 2014.

 Public records were not available to determine if the Brewster & DeAngelis law firm had exhausted the state funds allocated to DA Steidley and her assistants for the purpose of hiring Brewster and Fortney.

 Prior to their withdrawal, Steidley made payments of $11,724.87 to the lawyers’ firm for legal services from February through May, according to DA Steidley’s secretary, Misti Douglas.

Brewster and Fortney had been actively working on the case since May, deposing several witnesses, including Claremore Police Chief Stan Brown, Claremore Mayor Mickey Perry, Kristen Rohr, the mother of a child molestation victim, and former judge and candidate for district attorney Erin Oquin among others.

 DA Steidley said her office was adhering to the law in asking permission from the attorney general to hire private legal counsel in the Singer case.

  “You would have no or very few people who would be prosecutors if every time a frivolous claim is filed against them that prosecutors must pay for representation out of their own pocket.,” she said.

 Steidley further suggested inquiries about the private lawyer contracts should be directed to the attorney general’s office since it approved them.

 “There is no unjust in myself or my first assistant requesting from the attorney general’s office and receiving zealous legal counsel in the defense of claims which were allegedly committed while in the performance of our duties,” she said. “The attorney general’s office represents state agencies — and the district attorney’s office is a state agency.”  

What is wrong, added Steidley, “is when a baseless claim is made and the people of Oklahoma must bear the expense and time of the litigation. That is unjust.”

Tulsa attorney Chad Neuens, who is representing Singer in his civil rights suit against Steidley and Lair, said the police detective is personally responsible for his legal expenses since he filed it personally and not as an employee of a  public agency.   

In addition to the Singer court case, Steidley and her assistants have been authorized to hire private counsel to handle administrative complaints filed against them with the Oklahoma Bar Association.

The attorney general approved the expenditure of up to $20,000 with attorneys Charles Alden, Deborah Reheard and Sharisse O’Carroll.

 Alden represents Steidley and assistant DAs Lair, David Iski and Tim Wantland. O’Carroll represents assistant DA Sean McConnell, and Reheard is counsel for assistant DA Don Palick, according to public records.

 The nature or details of the complaints filed with the bar association were not disclosed.

 By contrast, Assistant State Attorney General Dixie L. Coffey — and not an outside private lawyer — is representing Steidley in the disability discrimination lawsuit filed against her by Eddie Griffin, a former investigator for the district attorney’s office. He claims he was unfairly terminated because of a disability he suffered while on the job.

 

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