Claremore Daily Progress

September 1, 2013

Grand jury petition shows chasm between law officers, DA

Complaints range from corruption to lying to mishandling sex cases

Salesha Wilken
Staff Reporter

CLAREMORE —

Sheriff Scott Walton and five other citizens are collecting signatures in hopes of forcing a special grand jury to investigate the actions of a half-dozen county officials, including the district attorney.
A petition filed in court by Walton’s group this past week describes an array of complaints, most targeting District Attorney Janice Steidley and three of her assistants for incidents spanning more than two years.
The petition drive — approved  by a judge Thursday — highlights the fault lines between local law enforcement and the DA’s office. It also lobs a handful of allegations at Commission Chairman Kirt Thacker and Commissioner Mike Helm.
Steidley and others named in the petition said the claims are without merit. She called its allegations “baseless” and “pathetic” and said the petition is motivated by “political assassination.”
“My office and I have done nothing more than do our jobs, and we have been transparent in doing so,” she said.
Thacker said he invites a grand jury’s scrutiny - he pledged to sign the petition himself - to put to rest allegations that he and Helm skirted state purchasing laws. Both noted the state Bureau of Investigation has reviewed and not pursued the claims against them.
Walton and the petitioners have 42 days to get 4,487 registered voters to sign onto their petition and submit those names to the county election board for verification. If that happens, a grand jury will investigate their complaints.
Others who submitted this week’s petition are Claremore Police Det. John Singer, who is suing Steidley in federal court on grounds she sought to destroy his professional reputation; Claremore police Lt. Steve Cox; local businessmen Russell Guilfoyle and Myron Grubowski, who are frequent critics of the commissioners; and Billy D. Jones, the father of two juvenile victims.
14 claims outlined
Sponsors of the petition have outlined 14 claims they want investigated by a grand jury. Ten involve Steidley or one of three assistants - Bryce Lair, David Iski and Tim Wantland.
The broadest claim asks a grand jury to decide whether Steidley “should be removed from office … for oppression and corruption in office and willful maladministration.” It suggests that Steidley has caused crime victims and witnesses to be “unnecessarily subpoenaed to court” and allows long delays in the prosecution of sex crimes and other crimes.
Petitioners also make specific complaints against Steidley, including that she once lied to U.S. Justice Department investigators asking about the termination of a former employee. They claim she and Lair eavesdropped on employee workspaces at the courthouse in 2011. In a separate incident, they claim Steidley sent text messages to a sheriff’s deputy in May 2012 that threatened a “war” over criticisms the deputy had leveled at her.
Also in 2012, the petition claims Steidley got involved when a state game warden, Brek Henry, cited her brother, Ray Smith, and husband, attorney Larry Steidley, for illegal possession of a deer.
The petition suggests that Steidley tried to influence a witness in the investigation, a local taxidermist. It also accuses her of making bogus accusations against Henry.
The case against Smith and Steidley was resolved early this year by a district attorney in a neighboring district. The duo received a year’s probation and agreed to pay a fine under a deferred prosecution agreement. 
Another petition complaint says Steidley applied for a Justice Department grant under false pretense by using “fraudulent data” in her application. Yet another claims that she and Iski breached a state records management law by ordering someone to destroy emails related to an open records request.
The petition also delves into the public dispute between Steidley and Singer, the police detective against whom she made so-called Giglio accusations earlier this year. The term refers to a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring prosecutors to disclose information that could help defendants refute the credibility of witnesses. Such disclosures often involve police misconduct and can scar an officer’s reputation.
Steidley has maintained that she was obligated to disclose information about Singer. But the petitioners say the DA and her assistant, Lair, “manufactured bogus allegations of perjury” against the detective involving an 18-month-old rape case, because he’d been openly critical of Steidley.
As a result, Singer has sued Steidley in federal court, with the city weighing in on his behalf. The state attorney general also investigated Steidley’s claims and recently cleared Singer.
Related to that dispute, the petition claims Iski, one of Steidley’s assistants, “intentionally” misled a judge in court filings that involved Singer in a criminal case and a juvenile case.
Focus on sex crimes
The petition for a grand jury accuses Steidley of targeting another critic, Pryor police officer James Willyard, for recruiting someone to run against her.
It also focuses on how she and her staff handle cases of sex crimes involving children. 
Jones, one of the petitioners, has been a vocal critic of the DA’s office since Lair initially declined to file charges in an incident involving Jones’ two daughters, claiming the children had consented to the alleged sexual acts. Jones eventually went public, the case was reassigned, and it is now set for an Oct. 7 trial.
The petition accuses Steidley of releasing Jones’ name and telephone number to a Tulsa World reporter - despite Jones’ wishes at the time to remain anonymous.
In two other cases, the petition accuses Steidley’s assistant Wantland of violating victims rights laws by not disclosing plea bargains to the parents of child victims, nor giving them access to make victim impact statements.
The petition further claims Wantland “misled” a judge by saying the family of one victim had signed off on a plea agreement that reduced the severity of the crime and its related sentence.
One case in question involves Kristen and Chad Rohr, whose daughter was 3 years old when a neighbor exposed himself and propositioned her. The neighbor went to prison on a charge of indecent exposure.
The petition accuses Wantland of mishandling the case. (See related story.) 
Commissioners purchasing behavior
   While the petition focuses heavily on the actions of Steidley and her staff, it also includes charges that commissioners Thacker and Helm dodged state purchasing laws when they bought $100,000 worth of equipment, materials and services without issuing bids. It claims the officials received gifts and dinners from some of the companies involved.
After an investigation last year, Ben Loring, an assistant district attorney in a neighboring district, issued a stern warning that he believed Thacker and Helm had violated the law. But Loring said he decided not to prosecute because he thought it would be difficult to convict them.
The petition also alleges that Thacker used a county bulldozer to dig a pond on land he leased for cattle, and that he later used county crews to work on a private road.
In addition, it charges Helm with receiving campaign donations from companies doing business with Rogers County.