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June 4, 2014

Forum reveals candidates positions: District Attorney

CLAREMORE — The Republican candidates for District Attorney squared off in their most formal forum of the primary season Monday night in front of a packed Baird Hall audience and the cameras of Rogers State University Television.

RSU-TV aired the forums Tuesday, which also included the Republicans running for Rogers County Commissioner District 3 and County Treasurer.

Former Special Judge Erin Oquin drew the short straw to lead off.

“I am not running for this office to use it as a stepping stone for a higher office in Oklahoma City,” Oquin said. “I am running because I am from here... My family goes back four generations and I know what we need.”

The relationships between the district attorney’s office, the public, victims and law enforcement is broken and needs to be repaired, according to Oquin. Citing 30 years of experience as an attorney and judge, Oquin said because of her strong leadership and organization skills, she can rebuild these relationships.

 “I am tired of hearing about dysfunction in the district attorney’s office,” Claremore City Attorney Matthew Ballard said in his opening remarks. “I am tired of dysfunction in the district attorney’s office overshadowing all the good things in our community.”

Ballard declared he would end the dysfunction and lead by example.

Incumbent District Attorney Janice Steidley claimed she “has cleaned up the office” and “raised the bar” for law enforcement. “I have given the steady leadership that is needed. I have not strayed from my opinions and my decisions and my decisions have been validated.”

Steidley has claimed she was cleared by the multicounty grand jury; however, First Assistant Oklahoma Attorney General Tom Bates issued a release Thursday refuting those statements.

“She makes broad statements that she was categorically cleared by the Multicounty Grand Jury (MCGJ). Any reasonable reading of the report makes abundantly clear that is not the case,” Bates wrote in an email.

Are you qualified to be the District Attorney?

Ballard said he served as a special victims prosecutor in Oklahoma County, arguing cases on behalf of victims.

“This is experience no other candidate in this race has, that is critical to success as a district attorney.”  Ballard stressed that a District Attorney must lead by example.

“You have to be ready to be in the forefront and that extends to the courtroom.”

Ballard also serves as a civil attorney and he claims the dual experience will allow him to succeed as a district attorney.

Steidley served as an assistant district attorney in Rogers County for four years before taking time off to raise her children. She returned to work, winning the 2010 bid for office.

“I believe I am absolutely qualified…” Steidley said.

“It is a shame anymore that people can not be trusted on their word. For the most part, they can be,” Steidley said. “…A prosecutor is to trust but verify and this is what my office has done…”

Steidley said a “district attorney needs to be objective.”

Oquin also worked in the Rogers County District Attorney’s Office before spending 10 years as a Special Court Judge.

Oquin said she handled thousands of cases while serving as a judge, sometimes as many as 400 a week.

“I know what hard work is… You will not find another candidate who will be as hardworking as I am. I am used to it and I don’t have a problem with it,” Oquin said.

What is the biggest law enforcement problem facing Rogers County right now?

Steidley said there was not a “true leader” and no check and balance on law enforcement when she came into office.

“When I came in, I followed the law each and every time…” Steidley said.

There are certain law enforcement [officers] that do not agree with my decisions. It is a ‘different era’ for law enforcement and “we are just doing our job,” Steidley said.

Steidley said her administration was the first to make a disclosure about an officer. She referenced legal issues in other counties, claiming she made these decisions to prevent liability for Rogers County.

“The biggest problem facing Rogers County with law enforcement, at this time, is lack of trust with the district attorney’s office,” Oquin said. “I have spoke with many officers in every area of the county. They do not feel they have the support of the DA’s office.”

The officers don’t understand why they should spend hours and hours on a case when they are declined to be filed, according to Oquin.

One local chief pulled a random sample of 30 police reports. The DA declined to file charges in all 30 cases in the “the best interest of justice,” Oquin said.

“There is an obvious low morale among local officers,” Oquin said.

Another issue for law enforcement is the Oklahoma Highway Patrol Drug Interdiction and Cherokee Marshalls are not working the area, according to Oquin.

“It is a great detriment to all of us living in this county because we don’t have those resources available anymore,” Oquin said.

Agreeing with Oquin, Ballard added, “There is a complete and total breakdown between law enforcement and Steidley.”

“I agree with the multicounty grand jury that recently returned its report. In that report, it found lack of professionalism and a failure to assume the mantle of leadership in this district,” Ballard said. “I believe we need a district attorney that is prepared to lead the district and that stands behind and stands for law enforcement.”

Ballard said law enforcement should be held accountable. But, when they are out there putting their lives on the line, they deserve a district attorney that will stand behind them.

If you had to grade the performance of the district attorney’s office as an outsider using the A-F system found in the public schools, what grade would you give the office?

“…Unequivocally, the district attorney’s office would receive an F,” Oquin said. “There has been a total breakdown with not only law enforcement, but with the public.”

The public does not feel welcome in that office and the victims of crimes are not being treated according to the Victims Rights Act, according to Oquin.

Ballard also gave the office a failing grade.

“I wouldn’t be in this race if I believed the district attorney was passing,” Ballard said. “I believe that the district attorney has earned that F grade.”

We need a district attorney that can clean up the situation we currently have, he said.

Before Steidley took office, agencies were working together across the district, according to Ballard.

“Crime doesn’t stop at the city limits … the county line,” Ballard said.

“We need to start working together to fight crime no matter where it is. When we are able to do that we will have a district attorney that is able to achieve that passing grade,” according to Ballard.

Steidley disagreed with their evaluation, giving her office an ‘A’.

She said her office has case assignment and set hours for law enforcement to work with prosecutors.

OHP has stopped working the turnpike because the area has “dried up”, but no law enforcement has “pulled out” of the area, according to Steidley.

Steidley said those specific interdiction officers are directly connected with the disclosures she made about a Claremore Police officer.

“There is a common denominator here,” Steidley said.

What must be done to have a more professional relationship with law enforcement?

“The first that we have to do is get back to having respect for our law enforcement,” Ballard said.

“I was disturbed whenever I saw what the multicounty grand jury came back with in May and I was dismayed when I heard our current district attorney claiming that as a win, as validation,” Ballard said. “I can tell you this, in my job, if I had a performance review that said I was unprofessional, that said I was a bully. That said I had failed to assume the mantle of leadership. I wouldn’t be excited about that. I would resign or I would expect to be fired.”

Ballard said he is running to stand up for the community and the constitution. He plans to restore leadership to the office and repair the relationship with law enforcement.

Steidley refuted Ballard’s statements, saying that is what she has done while in office.

“I stood up for the community,” Steidley said.

She claims her office was attacked and smeared while in office by a small group of law enforcement.

“There is not a district attorney in history that has gone through what I have gone through and I stand here today. I know the decisions I made were correct,” Steidley said. “We have been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. Regarding any professionalism, more than willing to talk to the grand jury about that.”

Steidley said there has to be a mutual respect to repair the relationship with law enforcement.

As soon as the multicounty grand jury interim report came out, “I called the sheriff and the chief of police here. I said boys it is done. We need to stop the perception we are not working…” Steidley said.

According to Oquin “Officers need to feel welcome when they come to the DA’s office. They need to have more input on a case. They do not know when deals are being cut and their opinion should be respected.

“It doesn’t cost anymore out of the budget to be courteous, whether you’re law enforcement, the public or a victim of a crime,” Oquin said.

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