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February 21, 2014

Dispute erupts over DA’s mediated libel agreement

CLAREMORE —

A judge has been asked to enforce a disputed out-of-court settlement of a libel lawsuit filed by District Attorney Janice Steidley and two assistants against sponsors of the unsuccessful citizens’ petition for a local grand jury investigation of the DA’s office.
The request was submitted Thursday by the prosecutors to Tulsa County District Judge Carlos J. Chappelle. It asserted five of the petition sponsors agreed to the settlement two weeks ago in a mediation session but then two of them refused to sign it.
Consenting to the agreement — which Steidley said dismissed all the defendants except Claremore police officer John Singer in return for payment of $25,000 to the prosecutors’ outside legal expenses — were Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton, businessman Russell Guilfoyle and resident Billy D. Jones.
One of those who refused to sign the document, Claremore policeman Steve Cox, said he never agreed to the mediated settlement of the libel suit. The other petition sponsor who Steidley said backed out, businessman Myron Grubowski, declined comment.
Cox’s attorney, Chad Neuens, submitted a formal response Friday to the prosecutors’ enforced settlement request, accusing Steidley and her assistants of “misrepresenting” Cox and Singer's position to the court.
“During the entire mediation,” said Neuens, “neither officer Cox nor his counsel were ever involved in any settlement negotiations with plaintiffs other than a demand by plaintiffs that officer Cox pay a significant portion of plaintiffs’ attorney fees. Officer Cox refused to pay any money to plaintiffs for any reason.”
At one point during mediation discussion, Neuens added, Cox was informed he would be dropped from the libel suit but he was not provided with draft language to that effect and that the mediators were specifically told Cox would not sign “any settlement agreement.” 
Defendants Cox and Singer as well as their counsel participated in good faith mediation, but the plaintiffs refused to negotiate with Officer Singer and the mediators notified Neuens shortly before the mediation ended Singer would remain as the sole defendant in the case. Neuens further contends the plaintiffs have misrepresented to the court that Officer Singer refused to settle.
Steidley, assistant district attorney David Iski and former assistant district attorney M. Bryce Lair implored Judge Chappelle to force Cox and Grubowski to accept the agreement. They said the defendants’ insurance companies had agreed to pay $25,000 to the prosecutors’ outside legal firm in order to avoid future costly litigation.
The prosecutors said terms of the out-of-court settlement were negotiated by mediators Stratton Taylor and state Sen. Sean Burrage at their law offices in Claremore on Feb. 8 and Feb. 9. 
“With the assistance of the co-mediators (who acted on a pro bono basis), plaintiffs reached a full and complete agreement regarding the disposition of this litigation with all defendants except John Singer,” the prosecutors told Judge Chappelle. 
“This agreement was memorialized in writing (prepared by defendants’ counsel) and approved by the co-mediators as well as the defendants” with the exception of Singer, who they said refused to settle.
But Cox strongly disputed that depiction of what occurred, and asked Judge Chappelle to award him his legal costs for having to challenge the matter in court. 
Cox said neither he nor his attorney had any communications with the prosecutors, their outside attorney or the mediators regarding settlement of the libel suit during the two week period since the mediation occurred. Even if he had been contacted, added Cox, he would not have consented to or signed “any presented agreement.”
The settlement agreement presented by the prosecutors to Judge Chappelle said that in addition to dismissing everybody except Singer from the libel suit, all parties agreed the settlement “in no way” represented “an admission of any wrongdoing on anyone’s part relating to the grand jury” and “in no manner resolves the accuracy of any of the issues.”
Sheriff Walton, officers Singer and Cox and the other sponsors of the citizens’ petition for a local grand jury investigation had accused the DA’s office of malfeasance and corruption in the petition.
They collected more than 7,700 valid voter signatures but a judge disallowed the petition in mid-October because the names were obtained on unauthorized forms. The state attorney general then assigned the accusations to the state multicounty grand jury, which has yet to conclude its investigation and findings.
DA Steidley and her assistants filed their libel suit against the petition sponsors two days after it was rejected by the judge. They said they were motivated to initiate a mediated agreement of the suit by “a desire to focus on the citizens of Rogers County rather than this civil litigation.”
Steidley also has pending a federal lawsuit filed against her by Singer, accusing her of violating his First Amendment rights to free speech in the aftermath of a 2011 rape case he investigated.
A third legal front for the district attorney includes a defamation suit she and two assistants filed a year ago against The Daily Progress. They contend the paper wrongly accused her of criminal conduct in news stories and editorials. That case still awaits a judge’s decision on its legal viability in view of their public officials status.

 

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