A northeastern Oklahoma district attorney gave tens of thousands of dollars in raises to at least a dozen members of his staff following his defeat in the Republican primary election this summer, according to payroll records reviewed by The Frontier.
Payroll records from the Oklahoma District Attorney’s Council show that Judicial District 10 (Osage and Pawnee counties) District Attorney Rex Duncan approved significant increases to the salaries of at least 12 staff members — some of whom received raises of around 60 percent between June and July.
Duncan, who has served as district attorney since first being elected in 2010, lost the June 26 Republican primary to former assistant district attorney Mike Fisher after a bitter campaign that saw both sides accuse the other of prosecutorial failings and spreading lies about the other candidate. Duncan also accused Fisher, a lifelong Republican, of covertly working to retake the office on behalf of Democrats, while Fisher accused the Osage County chapter of the Republican Party of campaigning on behalf of Duncan.
Fisher, who won with 65 percent of the vote, was to face an independent candidate in November’s election but that candidate later withdrew, making Fisher the winner. He is to take office in January.
Those who received substantial raises in the days after Duncan’s primary defeat include assistant district attorneys, an investigator, several secretaries and the office’s finance and budget director. Though the District Attorney’s Council handles payroll for DA offices across the state, it is the district attorney’s themselves who decide how much their employees earn.
The raises reflect an annualized increase in payroll approaching a quarter of a million dollars, the records show.
However, Duncan said many of those who received the raises will not likely remain at the office after Jan. 7, when District Attorney-elect Fisher takes office. So, the raises would only have an actual expense to the office of around $110,000.
Duncan told The Frontier that he had to give many of his employees raises after losing the election to convince them to stay at the office until his term was up in January.
“It was my intention to not have everybody jump ship who doesn’t intend to work for Mike Fisher, to try and entice them to stay until the end of the year,” Duncan said, adding that at least one attorney who received a significant raise was still going to leave next month. “Despite the effort to keep everybody, it’s not 100 percent effective, but I hope that it would be largely effective.”
Duncan said the raises were not an attempt to sabotage Fisher, and that any money that would go to running the office once Fisher takes the spot has yet to be distributed by the state.
Fisher called the raises “a violation of the public trust,” but that he hopes that most of the current employees remain once he takes office.
“I suspect we’ll only have a couple of people who will decide to leave the office. There will be a couple of changes obviously, when we have a new district attorney take office,” Fisher said. “He (Duncan) has a pretty good support staff there and I’d like to see most of them remain. I think it’s in the public’s best interest that they stay because they’ve got experience. You don’t want to go in as the new DA and have to train everyone. I would like to see them stay, and I believe most of them will.”
Asked whether he thought taxpayers would consider the raises appropriate, Duncan said he did what was necessary to keep the office operating.
“I don’t know what they would think,” Duncan said. “I think they would expect me to keep a team in place to do the work of the office until my last day. That’s my approach to it.”
Duncan said he did not know how many of his current employees hoped to stay once Fisher took office.
“Any time you’ve got a change in leadership at state office, there are some people who will see that as a time to leave and others may not be asked to stay, and it’s a shakeup from top to bottom,” Duncan said. “This is my approach to keep key individuals in place through the end of my watch.”
Included in the raises were:
- First Assistant District Attorney Robert Alderson received a $20,798 per year (or about $10,400 through December) raise and Assistant District Attorney Diane Hanmer received a $25,646 annual (or about $12,800 through December) raise, putting both their annual gross salaries at $110,000.
- Legal Intern Matt Smothermon, who had gotten a more than $13,000 a year raise in May a year after being hired, got another $27,000 a year (or $13,500 through December) raise in June, bringing his annual gross salary up from about $46,200 in January to $90,000 per year by August. Duncan said Smothermon was a legal intern when he was first hired but has been an attorney for more than a year, though the District Attorney’s Council still lists him as a legal intern.
- Investigator Travis Foster was given a raise of around $30,000 per year (or $15,000 until January), raising his gross salary from about $51,200 a year in January to more than $82,000 a year in August.
- Finance and Budget Coordinator Sharon Yates was given a more than $22,000 per year (or $11,000 through December) raise in July, increasing her annual gross pay from around $53,000 per year in January to nearly $80,000 per year.
- Secretary Emily Hargraves was given a raise of around $26,000 per year (or $13,000 through January) raise in July, increasing her annual gross salary from around $42,000 per year to more than $68,000 per year.
- The raises increased average monthly payroll expenses from around $76,000 per month to around $94,000 per month, according to the data.
(To view the full dataset, click here.)
Duncan said his office has been shorthanded one full-time attorney position for years, and that the money that would have gone to pay for that salary has been used to offer assistant district attorneys higher pay to help recruit and retain them.
“It’s been my philosophy that our office is in the middle of a rural area that is a significant drive or a substantial commute. Certainly, we have to pay our lawyers a salary that makes them want to drive,” Duncan said. “We have always been shorthanded on lawyers, and as a result of not having a full complement, I’ve been able to pay the lawyers a little bit better than DAs in adjacent districts, to recruit them a little. It’s a tactic that’s worked for eight years and it’s one we’ll still be employing through early January.”
In 2014, a similar pay raise situation occurred in District 12 (Rogers, Mayes and Craig counties), when former District Attorney Janice Steidley approved about $50,000 in raises for four employees during her final days in office after being defeated in the Republican primary by now-District Attorney Matt Ballard, according to the Tulsa World’s Rhett Morgan.
(An earlier version of this story contained information about former Assistant District Attorney Doug Merrit’s salary prior to leaving the office in June. However, Merrit was working only part time prior to leaving the office, while the assistant district attorney hired in July, Jeff Mixon, is working on a full-time basis.)