The Tulsa County Court House. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Every case worked on by unlicensed interns at the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office between 2017 and 2018 is potentially voidable, a lawyer for the Oklahoma Bar Association testified in a disciplinary hearing Wednesday.

Gina Hendryx, the bar association’s general counsel, said that Tara Jack — who served as the supervisor over the misdemeanor, traffic, and domestic violence docket at the time the unlicensed interns were handling cases — was responsible for five interns who worked more than 100 cases between November 2017 and November 2018.

Hendryx told the three-person bar association tribunal on Wednesday that she felt Jack was guilty of failure to supervise, of assisting in the unauthorized practice of law, and of failure to administer justice. But she stopped short of taking a piece of flesh, instead recommending that Jack be publicly censured, rather than losing her law license or having it suspended.

Hendryx said that while Jack had been the direct supervisor for the interns, what happened “was the culmination of many issues” at the DA’s office, not the least of which was the “poor supervision.”

Allen Smallwood, Jack’s attorney, told the tribunal that Jack admitted to not doing a good job supervising the interns, but argued she should not “feel the hammer” for the mistakes at the DA’s office that led to the unlicensed interns conducting trials.

Hendryx said following the hearing that the tribunal which oversaw Wednesday proceedings now have 30 days to present a punishment recommendation to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. That ruling could come as late as this winter, Hendryx said.

In February, The Frontier first reported that the Oklahoma Bar Association was investigating the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office after an investigation found non-lawyers represented the state in possibly as many as 150 misdemeanor cases between November 2017 and November 2018.

The employees were all serving as interns and had either taken the bar exam or were planning to take it in the future, according to the complaint. All five interns — Kelly Sweeney, Randall Young, Johnnie James, Christopher “Max” Deane and Michael Shouse — were assigned to Jack when she served as director of the Traffic and Misdemeanor Division of the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office.

The issue came up when Sweeney told Special Judge April Seibert in November 2018 that she had failed the bar exam and that she felt some defense attorneys were making fun of her, Seibert testified Wednesday.

Seibert said during the hearing that she informed Sweeney that she should tell that defense attorneys that regardless of the results of her bar exam, as long as she was a licensed legal intern, she could represent the state in court.

Sweeney told her she did not have an LLI, which would have allowed her to represent the state, Seibert testified.

“I was shocked,” Seibert told the tribunal. She said she immediately called Jack and First Assistant District Attorney Erik Grayless, and Grayless testified Wednesday that he then initiated an investigation that found five interns had represented the state despite not being licensed to do so.

Court records show the five interns were listed as attorneys representing the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office — and often were listed as the only attorney present representing the state — at scores of criminal misdemeanor hearings and even at some misdemeanor jury and non-jury trials.

The complaint and response listed around 67 separate specific case numbers in which an unauthorized intern represented the state at a hearing or trial, though the complaint alleges that happened in at least 156 instances.

Of the former interns listed in the complaint, Shouse, Sweeney and Young remain employed as assistant district attorneys at the DA’s office. Shouse works in the civil division, Sweeney is in the criminal division and Young is in the “forfeitures, extraditions and post-conviction relief” division, according to a roster of attorneys provided by the DA’s office.

James told The Frontier last month he now works in private practice, and Jack testified Deane works as an attorney in a civil firm. All five of the former interns listed in the complaint are now licensed attorneys.

In one 2018 case, in which a defendant was charged with driving under the influence and running a stop sign, a non-attorney intern was listed as representing the state at jury trial along with an assistant district attorney. Though the jury found the defendant not guilty of the DUI and guilty of running a stop sign, months later, in February 2019 and after defense attorneys had complained about the issue, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler filed a “nunc pro tunc” application in the case, which is used to correct earlier clerical errors, requesting that the case be dismissed “in the best interest of justice.”

Oklahoma Bar Association investigator Jamie Lane testified about a number of cases in which the unlicensed interns represented the state. In some of those cases the interns handled the entire case, she testified. Lane said she did not find evidence that anyone served jail time as a result of one of those cases, but mentioned one person did get probation in a case that was later dismissed, and at least one other case was expunged, so she was unsure of whether that defendant had served jail time.

Smallwood mentioned three cases handled by interns that went to either a jury trial or non-jury trial, all of which ended in acquittals.

Jack admitted in a court document filed in the case last week that she failed to adequately supervise the employees who appeared in court without being licensed. She tearfully read those statements into the record prior to her testimony beginning Wednesday morning.

Jack told Hendryx she agreed that her actions in failing to supervise her employees were “prejudicial to the administration of justice,” and told the tribunal that, as a lawyer, it was her job to oversee the non-lawyers and ensure they knew what they could and could not do.

“I failed at that,” she said.

At the end of her testimony, Jack read a statement to the tribunal that said she was “very sorry this happened,” and that she neglected her duties as supervisor of the misdemeanor division.

“I failed to supervise (the interns) adequately, they’re all good attorneys and good people,” Jack said. “I’m embarrassed, I embarrassed my office, I wish I could take it all back.”

Smallwood painted a picture of Jack as an overworked employee of the DA’s office, responsible not only for the misdemeanor docket, but potentially several other areas of the DA’s office at the same time. Jack testified Wednesday there were times she might simultaneously have been needed in different courtrooms on different floors. She also said she was taking care of her 76-year-old mother at the time.

And Jack described the DA’s office at the time as a place that was “bleeding out experience,” as more seasoned prosecutors and supervisors were leaving the office.

Lane told the tribunal that after the OBA began investigating the allegations, the DA’s office implemented a new employee handbook for interns that specifically laid out what they could and could not do, as well as a badge system that was color-coded to specifically identify who could represent the state in court and who could not.

“Do you believe (the DA’s office) responded expeditiously?” Smallwood asked.

“It seemed to have fixed the problem,” Lane replied.

Grayless testified that as first assistant he acted essentially as the chief operating officer of the DA’s office, and that he assigned interns and that all mid-level supervisors, such as Jack was at the time, reported to him.

He said he felt that Jack was a good attorney who was likely burned out at the time, and he felt then that perhaps that burnout was affecting her work ethic and supervisory abilities, leading to some things falling through the cracks.

Grayless said there had been a great deal of turnover in the DA’s office leading up to November 2018 as District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler was running for re-election, and some of the ADAs were afraid he would lose and had taken jobs elsewhere.

Grayless said the caseload faced by prosecutors, as well as scrutiny from the public and defense attorneys, can create a stressful environment that can lead to errors.

“Our office is always a target,” he said. “We carry that.”

Further reading
Non-lawyers represented Tulsa County in dozens of criminal cases