Claremore Daily Progress

December 8, 2013

DA’s libel suit attacked on political free speech principle

Salesha Wilken
Staff Writer

CLAREMORE —

 

Sponsors of the unsuccessful grand jury petition to investigate District Attorney Janice Steidley have urged dismissal of her defamation lawsuit against them on the basis it violates their rights to free political speech.

Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton and Claremore businessman Myron Grubowski, responding to Steidley’s libel suit, cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision that said the government cannot regulate or penalize political speech.

The Supreme Court made its ruling in a challenge by Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit organization, to a federal campaign finance law restricting corporate contributions to political candidates.

But Walton and Grubowski said the court’s broad definition of First Amendment free speech rights applied to their case as well because the grand jury petition accusing Steidley of wrongdoing amounted to political speech – which they said is also protected by the Oklahoma Constitution.

Steidley and her top assistants sued Walton, Grubowski and other sponsors of the grand jury petition the day after Tulsa County District Judge Jefferson Sellers rejected it in mid-October because the petitioners used unauthorized forms in gathering nearly 7,000 validated voter signatures.

The prosecutors claimed the petitioners defamed them with false, malicious accusations of criminal acts and malfeasance in office. They are seeking more than a half-million dollars in damages from Walton, Grubowski, Claremore police officers John Singer and Steve Cox, businessmen Russell Guilfoyle, Claremore resident Billy D. Jones and 25 unnamed other grand jury petitioners.

Walton and Grubowski were the only defendants who asked the state court to dismiss the prosecutors’ libel suit on the ground it violated their rights to political free speech, but they were joined by the others in questioning the validity of the legal action.

Cox and Singer refered to the defamation suit as, “a tale of a caution to any citizen who seeks to hold Rogers County Oklahoma elected officials responsible for the actions they take while in office.”

The two police officers requested that Special Tulsa County Judge Carlos Chappelle issue a gag order restricting the prosecutors and their Tulsa attorney, Joel Wohlgemuth, from contacting the news media in order to “preserve the integrity and fairness of the judicial process.” The officers said Steidley, her assistants and Wohlgemuth, as members of the Oklahoma Bar Association, have a duty “to ensure that cases are tried in the courtroom rather than the media.”

Cox and Singer also claimed the prosecutors are “pursuing this litigation to intimidate Rogers County citizens who are petitioning the court to investigate government officials.”

The prosecutors and Wohlgemuth have held several press conferences and issued statements criticizing the petitioners, calling the grand jury petition “mythical, at best” and claiming it was initiated (instead of initiative) for “political, retaliatory and personal reasons.”

Petitioners have rejected that characterization of their campaign and have also held off renewing efforts to convene a local grand jury with a new petition drive, pending an investigation by the state’s multicounty grand jury into the conduct of the Rogers County District Attorney’s office and the county commissioners.

The multicounty grand jury was charged by Attorney General Scott Pruitt with conducting an inquiry after Judge Sellers threw out the petition for a local grand jury.

The multicounty grand jury is authorized by law to investigate accusations of criminal activity and misconduct by public officials. It has met twice since being handed the allegations against Rogers County prosecutors and commissioners two months ago. But since its proceedings are closed to the public there’s been no indication of when the jurors will hand up their findings.