When pain & politics collide
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
— Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandRep. Carol Bush trudged through the Capitol on the final day of the Oklahoma legislative session in May, trying to process the last-minute crisis that had threatened to derail one of her bills.
“That Friday at 5 o’clock I walked out with 10 of my colleagues,” said Bush, R-Tulsa. “There were no hugs good-bye or ‘have a nice summer.’ It was, ‘Oh My God. I just want to go home. Don’t talk to me. Don’t touch me.’”
Her face darkened. “That was such a toxic environment and so negative.”
Bush had introduced two bills in the House to expand the time that child sexual abuse victims could file civil or criminal charges.
“For me it was a no-brainer. I thought it was a slam dunk,” she said. “Who doesn’t want to protect those who have been abused?”
However, a 28-word amendment nearly jeopardized everything she had worked for. The words had been quietly added by Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.
Bush discovered the long-term impact of the new wording shortly before the end of the 2017 session after the House and Senate passed her bill, igniting a legal firestorm that made national headlines.
The amendment altered her bill expanding the time a child sexual abuse victim could file a civil suit from age 20 to 45. But the change ensured that anyone who lost a civil suit, including child sexual abuse victims suing their assailants, would have to pay the court costs and legal fees of the prevailing party. It would be known as Loser Pays.
As far as anyone knew, no other state had that law, and no one wanted Oklahoma setting the precedent.
“They were about to create chaos by throwing in a couple of words that changed the entire structure of the legal system for 400 years,” said John Williams, Oklahoma Bar Association executive director.
Bush recalled the moment she learned about the Loser Pays problem that undermined her bill. “It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon and I’m thinking, ‘Oh dear God.’ And with that, every lawyer and judge, not only in Oklahoma but across the country, starts blowing up my phone.”
House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, also heard the deafening denunciations, keenly aware they had less than two weeks to correct it. At that time, the Legislature still had not passed a budget.
“Lawyers, plaintiffs and defendants called. I didn’t look at it from the lawyer perspective,” he said. “I looked at it from the citizens’ perspective. This is just bad law. And ‘No, let’s not wait and see what happens. Let’s fix this now.’”
What happened to Bush’s bills underscores the political power plays and unwillingness to compromise in the male-dominated Legislature, especially involving sexual assault issues. That further erodes the state’s image and places Oklahoma among the worst rankings on social welfare issues.
Just as importantly, the story highlights roadblocks that child victims of rape and sexual assault are required to surmount to get basic justice while their attackers go free.
Legislators openly discussed the behind-the-scenes politics of the bills with The Frontier and the devastating impact when a single legislator can arbitrarily sideline life-changing legislation.
“That is so important to understand that this process is a whirlwind and I have long lamented the dysfunctionality of it.” Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City
Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, the Senate sponsor of the bills, has served in the Legislature since 2010.
“Gosh, it’s almost a rarity when bills are approved or disapproved on their merits,” he said. “It is all to do with what party you are in, or whether you said something mean to the Speaker once. I could tell you so many stories I would lose track. It’s a wonder when meritorious things get through.
“That is so important to understand that this process is a whirlwind and I have long lamented the dysfunctionality of it.”
For rape survivors it is more than dysfunction. It is a world where pain and politics collide.
“On the outside, we were the all-American family,” said Virginia Lewis, recalling her life growing up in Tulsa with her father, a prominent attorney.
That ended one day in the mid-1980s when her mother asked if something were wrong.
The then-16-year-old girl confided that her father, George Michael Lewis, had been sexually abusing her since she was 11 years old.
“It is much easier to report a stranger who’s stolen your purse than it is to report a person you loved and respected for murdering your soul,” she said.
Then-District Attorney David Moss’ office deferred prosecution for Lewis.
“No prosecution. No prison time, just some brief counseling. And no media,” Virginia Lewis told The Frontier. “His life went along as normal while mine slowly spun out of control.”
Virginia Lewis, now divorced, laments the life-moments lost as she struggled to cope with the ultimate betrayal.
“I nearly died from anorexia in my 20s. I’ve been too afraid to have children for fear the same thing could happen to them. I haven’t slept through the night in years. I suffer from PTSD and I’ve struggled with depression all my life.”
“His life went along as normal while mine slowly spun out of control.” Virginia Lewis, sexual assault survivor.
In 2016, Lewis left Holland Hall school in south Tulsa and her 20-year teaching career. She began working with legislators to extend the statute of limitations so child sexual abuse victims could file charges against their attackers later in life.
She had saved letters in which her father confessed to assaulting her and shared them on her new website, ToPrevail.org. Using the site as a base, she started support groups for victims in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Bartlesville while working for stronger laws.
“Part of the challenge survivors face is simply being believed,” Lewis said. “That’s why I posted the letters on my website. Otherwise, I don’t think people would have believed me.”
The resulting uproar forced her father to surrender his law license. “He has finally become the pariah he deserves to be,” said Lewis, adding that he had received, “a hint of justice.”
George Michael Lewis could not be reached for comment for this story.
Not everything that year would go her way. Her proposed bill would have extended the time for child sexual assault victims to file criminal charges from age 31 to 37. It made it through the House Judiciary Committee, but died in the Senate Judiciary committee.
For Lewis, the experience was “a wake-up call to both the reality of how some people perceive those who make claims of sexual abuse, and to the very fickle nature of how quickly a bill can die. Just one person can kill a bill.”
The original sponsor of the 2016 Oklahoma bill left the Legislature but Lewis soon teamed with newcomer Bush.
Bush had been executive director of the Oklahoma Crime Commission for 10 years, which included running the Crime Stoppers program for Tulsa County. Steve Kunzweiler, Tulsa County district attorney, asked her to sponsor the bill and told her about the main advocate, Virginia Lewis.
Lewis, now 47, worked as a teenager for Bush who owned The Beach Party store in Tulsa. Now Bush was anxious to hear her story.
“I was very impressed with her resilience and tenacity to take a horrible event and turn it into something positive, even though it’s never going to help her,” Bush said.
Bush soon learned that under Oklahoma law, child sexual abuse victims had to file criminal charges by age 31. To seek justice through a civil suit, charges had to be filed by the age of 20.
Bush and Lewis worked on amendments so the age for both laws would be extended to 45 years old.
Then the first-term legislator said she learned why the 2016 bill was sidelined in Sykes’ committee: the fear of false allegations.
“I was told Sen. Sykes had made a comment, ‘We have to protect those who are falsely accused,’” Lewis said.
Sykes did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
“Good grief, you have to go through a lot to prove this when you are older. There is no physical evidence, no DNA, no police report in most cases,” Bush fumed. “If a woman or a man is going to go back against a predator when they are well into their adulthood, relive it, and open up those old wounds, why in the world would you make a false claim?”
Recently, national attention has focused on similar issues due to allegations against male politicians including Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.
"It is very important to be mindful of that when you are filing a charge and when you are moving forward with a case. You can ruin someone’s life with a stroke of a pen.” Trent Baggett, executive coordinator of the District Attorney’s Council.
Linda Terrell is executive director of the Oklahoma Regional Community Policing Institute. Her nonprofit group educates police departments and community agencies on how to work with victims of crime, including sexual assaults.
“I hear a lot about false allegations everywhere we train. It’s not just something you hear in Oklahoma,” she said. “Nationally, it is the mantra to not move forward. It’s infuriating.”
Kim Lonsway, research director for End Violence Against Women International has studied false allegations for years.
“There are false reports. The legitimate studies fall in the category of 2 to 8 percent,” she said. “But it is not a rampant phenomenon.”
Trent Baggett is executive coordinator of the District Attorney’s Council in Oklahoma and a former assistant district attorney. He is not aware of specific false allegations, but understands why legislators might be uneasy.
“There is a stigma that attaches to rape charges,” he said. “You file the charge and it winds up on the front page. The dismissal winds up in the want ads. It is very important to be mindful of that when you are filing a charge and when you are moving forward with a case. You can ruin someone’s life with a stroke of a pen.”
Bush wanted to talk with Sykes to counter his concerns. “I tried to meet with him three times in January. He wouldn’t do it. I didn’t know the players at that time. And I didn’t know the Sykes factor,” she said.
She was about to find out.
For long-time observers of the Legislature, the anatomy of a bill has changed dramatically over the years. It can be the difference between cooking dinner for hours in a conventional oven or pushing a button to heat up a two-minute microwave meal.
“I worked at the state Health Department in the late ‘90s when we worked on tobacco legislation,” Bush said. “I remember going over the Capitol and spending eight, nine, 10 hours in committee. We took boxes of research and data. The legal department and research departments worked together writing the bills.
“My memory was that we’re going to have committee meetings, going to roll up our sleeves and get to work on it.”
Fast forward 20 years. “You go and present your bill in committee and it’s do-pass and do-fail. They ask a couple questions and they vote. Well, where is the work being done? It’s behind the scenes. It’s after the fact. It’s before it gets on the floor or maybe while it’s on the floor.”
The first of Bush’s two bills, House Bill 1468, would extend the age child sexual abuse victims could file criminal charges from age 31 to 45.
What changed when Lewis helped Bush write her new bill in 2017? “I knew to be successful I would have to build in ‘safeguards’ that would appease lawmakers worried about change.”
She once again came face-to-face with political reality when several lawmakers told her to modify her bill to placate Sykes and others who insisted it would lead to a tsunami of false allegations.
The bill also stated criminal charges could be filed against anyone making false allegations, even though filing a false police report is already a crime under Oklahoma law.
“We were trying to answer Sen. Sykes’ comments from last year. We were trying to be preemptive and added that in,” Bush said.
Lewis informed one out-of-state critic, “I am working for progress in the best way I can in the political climate I live in.”
“Let me be clear that I’ve never been completely at ease with any of the ‘safeguards’ but in order to get anything done, we had to have elements of compromise to ease fears,” she said.
"I am working for progress in the best way I can in the political climate I live in.” Virginia Lewis, sexual assault survivor.
House Bill 1470 would extend the age a child sexual abuse victim could file civil charges from age 20 to 45.
“We were raising the statute of limitations because brain studies show if you are going to deal with suppressed things and confront predators, they are going to do it by their early 40s,” Bush said. “That gives them time to heal mentally.
“The bottom line for us: All we wanted was the statute of limitations to be raised to age 45,” she said. “There were a couple of men who wanted us just to go away. My problem is, if it’s fight or flight – I’m a fighter.”
Bush and Lewis discovered an unexpected ally in Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow. When they explained the two bills, he immediately offered to be a co-sponsor.
“I had a personal story I had never shared with anybody,” he told The Frontier.
McDugle said he was sexually assaulted as a boy by a youth minister. He was invited with a group of boys to watch movies at the minister’s house. When the others suddenly left, the minister took McDugle to his bedroom, put on a pornographic movie and assaulted him.
The 50-year-old legislator and father had been secretly dealing with the aftermath all his life. The pain had never fully dissipated. But McDugle, now too old to use the bill himself, wanted to help others.
While Bush and Lewis were fending off questions about false allegations and altering their bills to appease skeptical leaders, events around them highlighted their cause.
In February, Rep. Dan Kirby, R-Tulsa, resigned after being investigated by the House Rules Committee looking into sexual harassment claims involving two former women staffers.
The House committee had quietly paid one of Kirby’s legislative assistants, Hollie Ann Bishop, $44,500 to settle a sexual harassment. She alleged she was wrongfully fired after she reported Kirby’s inappropriate behavior.
Kirby denied any wrongdoing with the two women and said he was not consulted about the settlement, paid for with taxpayer funds. The committee cleared him of the sexual harassment allegations but was planning on a vote to expel him when he resigned.
On March 9, Sen. Ralph Shortey, R-Oklahoma City, was caught by police in a Super 8 Motel in Moore with a 17-year-old boy. He was wearing a T-shirt referencing a Bible verse that states, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.”
Video via The Oklahoman
The married father of four was arrested on March 16 in Cleveland County on three counts of soliciting a minor, prostitution within 1,000 feet of a church and transporting someone for prostitution. He pleaded not guilty and resigned March 22.
The Cleveland County child prostitution charges were dismissed after a federal indictment charged him with child sex trafficking and three counts of child pornography.
On Nov. 30, Shortey pleaded guilty to a child sex-trafficking offense in exchange for federal prosecutors dropping the child pornography charges. He faces a minimum 10-year prison term.
“The story of Ralph Shortey spurred Rep. Kevin McDugle to admit he was sexually abused,” Bush said. “If that hadn’t happened, I’m not sure we would have gotten this far. Everyone thinks it’s only girls. No. It’s men, too.”
Bush asked McDugle to present the bills on the floor, telling him, “It will be more meaningful coming from a Republican male and a former Marine who was a sexual assault victim.”
On March 17 — a day after Shortey was charged — McDugle went public for the first time.
“I put a letter on each one of the member’s desk to let them know my story,” he said, “because it was important to me to see the statute of limitations be raised.”
McDugle wrote, “This is a very personal matter to me, since as a child taken advantage of by a youth minister, I knew the pain and negative thoughts such an act can leave on an impressionable child.
“It’s important to remember that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. But it’s also important to remember that everyone deserves their day in court.”
The response was swift from both sides.
McDugle heard from other male victims who had never felt confident enough to confide in others. He also was berated by fellow conservatives who wanted fewer people in the state’s overcrowded prisons.
“I got a lot of pushback from the extreme right,” he said.
McDugle was no longer hiding his outrage. He rebuked his outspoken critics on Facebook before blocking them. “Have you ever been raped? Have you ever been sexually abused?. . . If you haven’t, then shut your mouth.”
Four days later, Rep. George Faught, R-Muskogee, garnered national headlines while defending a bill he co-sponsored that would make abortions illegal if they were to be performed because of certain fetal genetic abnormalities. There were no exceptions for rape or incest.
In a confrontation caught on tape, Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, asked Faught if rape was the will of God.
“If you read the Bible, there’s actually a couple of circumstances where that happened,” Faught responded. “The Lord uses all circumstances. It’s a reality, unfortunately.”
“Is incest the will of God?”
“You know it’s a great question to ask and obviously if it happens it may not be the best thing that ever happened you know but … So you’re saying that God is not sovereign with every activity that happens in someone’s life and can’t use anything and everything in someone’s life – and I disagree with that.”
The tape went viral with headlines proclaiming that an Oklahoma legislator had declared rape and incest were God’s will.
The issues of rape and sexual assault were now front and center in Oklahoma, as they soon would be in the nation.
Rep. Bush felt she had sufficient support for her two bills in the House. It was time for Sen. Holt to make sure the bills would be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Holt said he approached Sykes, who was willing to hear the criminal bill without changes.
But for the civil suit bill, Holt said Sykes demanded a Loser Pays amendment or the bill would die. “It was the price to hear the bill,” Holt said. “It is what it is.”
On April 11, Sykes amended House Bill 1470 adding Loser Pays — if a child sexual abuse victim lost his or her civil suit, they had to pay the winner’s legal fees.
"You have to understand Sen. Sykes. When he’s made a decision about what it will take to hear a bill, there’s not really any discussion after that." Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City.
Lewis again had to weigh her options. “Now, was that a bitter pill to swallow? Sure it was. But the age for civil claims was being raised from 20 to 45. So what do you do?”
Holt also accepted the political reality. “You have to understand Sen. Sykes. When he’s made a decision about what it will take to hear a bill, there’s not really any discussion after that,” he said. “So he presented the amendment and he explains it like in 45 seconds. We vote on it and we all just sort of moved on.”
By May 3, the House and the Senate passed the bill with Sykes’ amendment.
Bush issued a statement thanking her supporters, hopeful that Gov. Mary Fallin would soon sign off on it. Her bill extending the age to file criminal charges had already passed both House and Senate and been signed by the governor two days earlier.
But shortly before the governor was to sign the second bill, lobbyist Steve Lewis received disturbing news from one of his clients, the trial lawyers association.
The wording on the Sykes amendment adding Loser Pays did not just apply to child sexual abuse victims. It applied to every civil case in Oklahoma.
“I called it to the Governor’s counsel attention. From there it spread,” Lewis said. “It was a big deal. It was certainly not something that should have been done inadvertently, or if it was on purpose, it shouldn’t have been done on the fly like that with no real discussion.”
Holt, an attorney, was shocked when he re-read the amendment. “Pretty quickly and clearly you can tell that that’s the case and at this point it’s on the governor’s desk.”
Sykes did not return requests for comment by The Frontier on the overly broad amendment and whether it was worded that way on purpose or was a mistake. Holt believed it was an error.
How did Holt as a Senate author miss it?
“To start with, I didn’t write that amendment,” Holt said. “I still had 15 to 20 pieces of legislation I’m moving through the process and I’m supposed to be somewhat knowledgeable about the hundreds of other bills I’m voting on.”
Holt said he explained to Fallin’s counsel that Loser Pays was intended only for child sexual abuse victims, not all civil suits. “I thought based on my conversations that the governor would probably veto it. But she thought that the statute of limitations issue was too important.”
Fallin signed the bill into law on May 10.
“This all just happened in a matter of hours,” Holt said. “We waited to see what people’s reaction would be. Word spread in the legal community that this provision had been signed that had far-reaching consequences.”
It seemed the entire country had the same opinion: Get rid of Loser Pays.
The Oklahoma Bar Association, the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce, oil companies, insurance companies, plaintiff attorneys, defense attorneys and national organizations representing all these groups demanded the provision be removed.
Oklahoma City attorney Cameron Spradling ratcheted up a one-man campaign to counter the bill. Spradling had spent nearly three decades as an attorney helping child sexual abuse victims.
In a series of excoriating emails to legislators and others involved, Spradling insisted the Loser Pays clause must be removed. “I have not rested since I discovered this situation on Friday. All I want to hear is that this is fixed,” he wrote Lewis. “Get on the problem now…There is nothing in that bill that you can cling to as a victory. Fix it.”
“I really attacked hard. I didn’t have time for diplomacy,” he told the Frontier. “The session was going to be closed and we were way past the point of playing nice.”
While most legislators concentrated on Loser Pays for all suits, Spradling was just as appalled by the Gross Negligence wording in the bill.
Unknown to most of the legislators, that section of the bill altered the standard for a child sexual abuse victim suing an organization such as a daycare center, a school or a church.
The new benchmark would be much harder to prove — “gross negligence” as opposed to “negligence” — which he termed, “an impossible standard to meet.”
“Gross negligence is a conscious and voluntary disregard of the need to use reasonable care, which is likely to cause foreseeable grave injury or harm to persons, property or both,” Spradling explained. “Negligence is mere failure to exercise reasonable care.”
“I’m ready to release the hounds of hell,” he warned legislators as his email barrage increased. “They dressed the bill to protect abuse victims then cut their rights out from underneath them with legal fees and gross negligence.”
"They dressed the bill to protect abuse victims then cut their rights out from underneath them with legal fees and gross negligence." Oklahoma City attorney Cameron Spradling.
He and Lewis fired emails back and forth, until Lewis finally blocked him after he refused her advice to “temper the vitriol.”
But Lewis was also upset with the bill. “The gross negligence provision was a mistake. Plain and simple,” she said. “The ramifications of gross negligence weren’t picked up until it was too late and had already become law.”
Bush was appalled. “Once we understood what that meant,” she said, “we needed to get it out.”
However, time was at a premium. The session would end May 26, in less than two weeks. The Legislature was fighting over a contentious justice reform package and even more controversial funding bills to plug an $878 million budget hole.
House Majority Floor Leader Echols is a law professor and understood how dramatic the shift in the law would be if Loser Pays were allowed to remain. “We have the American Rule. It says absent specific law to the contrary, each party in civil cases pays their own legal fees. There are exceptions for some civil suits.”
But not for ALL civil suits. “This was huge,” Echols said. “To my knowledge, we were the only state in the Union that would have gone to a Loser Pays system. It made national news.”
Holt provided a solution. He would amend another bill.
“It was in the same title of law. It updates the civil discovery code. So you can just add some more sections in that title.”
Spradling continued his avalanche of emails. On May 18 — eight days before the session was to close — he wrote Rep. Bush, “Fix this or wear this as your lasting legacy in Oklahoma and nationally.”
Bush tried to calm him as she worked to correct the bill. “I did tell him, ‘We’re fixing it. We’re fixing it. And he was like ‘When? When? When?’” And I said, “I don’t know.”
On May 22, with four days left, Echols offered a House Conference Committee Substitute for his existing bill, House Bill 1570, that would fix the problems with House Bill 1470:
“Striking gross negligence standard for certain damages; deleting required award of court costs and attorney fees to prevailing party.”
By May 25, the House and Senate had passed the bill. It was sent to the Governor on May 26, 2017 — in the final hours of the session.
“We were very much on pins and needles,” Bush said. “I will never know if this was intentional or if it was an oversight. It was quite an eye-opening experience.”
"I have never had to fix an issue that big in that short of a time frame. It was a perfect storm.” House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City.
Holt, who is running for mayor of Oklahoma City, has documented his distaste for what is too-often an irrational political game.
“So little of it is tied up with the merits of the bill. That is secondary,” Holt said. “So much of it is personalities and power. Where you stand in the pecking order. Who you’ve been nice to and mean to. You spend minutes on a piece of legislation — if that — sometimes. It is distressing to me.”
McDugle drove home, grateful he had exposed his personal grief and it had paid off.
“We’ve given people the opportunity that now, thankfully, they know that when they are 42 or 43 years old that law says you can go ahead and tell your story,” he said.”
Lewis reflected on her two-year fight and the political pummeling she endured.
“It’s a gauntlet, no doubt. From February through May you literally wonder day after day if your bill is going to make it,” she said.
“As grueling as the process was, I take comfort in knowing that there are an enormous number of lives that will be changed for the better, that their hope for justice now has a chance of becoming a reality.”
The last-minute scramble to fix the bill unmasked the politics that too often hinder legislation involving sexual abuse victims.
“I have never had anything like that happen,” Echols admitted. “I have never had to fix an issue that big in that short of a time frame. It was a perfect storm.”
Part Three: When Danyelle Dyer’s molester got out of prison, he moved next door to her. The 21-year-old reached out to Facebook for help and the world came to her rescue.
“I stand with gritted teeth and clenched fists refusing to let the fight be hers alone.” — Dyer’s father