Claremore Daily Progress

October 15, 2013

PETITION DISMISSED: Judge Sellers rules signature collection form unauthorized

Salesha Wilken
Staff Reporter

CLAREMORE —

A judge Tuesday  tossed out the citizens petition to impanel a grand jury to investigate District Attorney Janice Steidley, her top assistants and two county commissioners, ruling the sponsors collected  nearly 7,000 voter names on an unauthorized signature form. 

Tulsa County District Judge Jefferson Sellers ruled from the bench after a 2 1/2  hour hearing on a motion to dismiss the grand jury petition filed four days earlier by Steidley’s attorney, Joel Wohlgemuth of Tulsa.
Steidley contended the petition’s circulated signature pages used to collect sufficient names to impanel the grand jury were invalid because the summary wording of the allegations against the petition targets had not been approved by the court.
Judge Sellers agreed, noting the manila envelopes that contained the signature pages had a copy of the court-approved petition on one side and the unauthorized document with the summary and signature lines on the other.
Sponsors of the petition drive had collected more than 8,000 signatures during a month-long campaign. The Rogers County Election Board certified 6,994 of them as valid registered voters. Only 4,480 were needed to convene a grand jury under Oklahoma law.
The petition accusations against DA Steidley, her top assistants and the two county commissioners included witness tampering, wire tapping, threats, false reporting of criminal activity and fraud.
Judge Sellers was appointed Friday by the Oklahoma Supreme Court to review the petition and oversee any grand jury proceeding after Steidley and her assistants filed a motion to remove Grady County District Judge Richard Van Dyck from presiding over the process on the grounds he had mishandled the process. Judge Sellers ruled the signature pages were not a part of the original petition approved by Judge Van Dyck. Sellers said he had previously dismissed a grand jury petition in Tulsa County for the same reason.
Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton, Claremore police officers John Singer and Steve Cox, local businessmen Russell Guilfoyle and Myron Grubowski , and Bill Jones, the father of two rape victims, sponsored the grand jury petition effort.
“DA Steidley’s Tulsa lawyers generated a technicality that was successful,” said Walton. “But we will not be deterred. Our judges and the Attorney General have the ability to impanel a grand jury today, but we will give them time to take action on their own, before we pursue another petition.”
Singer said the sponsors “talked with people that had successfully” circulated grand jury petitions before, and thought they had done it the right way.
“There was no expert for us to call, no attorney for us to find,” said Singer.
Judge Sellers said it was apparent the citizens of Rogers County want a grand jury and that he would consider his authority to summon one absent of a valid petition.  He also encouraged the petitioners to appeal his ruling and further noted the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office has authority to impanel a grand jury.
“The will of this community is to have a grand jury impaneled,” Singer said. “There has been no support for (attorney) Wohlgemuth’s claim there has been some sham upon this county. There is only evidence this community wants an investigation into these actions.”
George Burnett of the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office attended Tuesday’s hearing before Judge Sellers, but said at one point, “We do not have a dog in this fight.” He said that while the petition signatures were thrown out, the courts can impanel a grand jury by administrative act.
“If this court believes the petitioners and the people of Rogers County want a grand jury, then we would encourage the court to allow this process to happen that citizens have a right to regress their government,” said Burnett.
Burnett agreed with Judge Sellers that the state attorney general can also impanel a grand jury.
“These are options we would explore based on the court’s ruling today,” said Megan Tilley of the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office afterwards.