A Tulsa transit bus station, S. Denver Ave. KASSIE MCCLUNG/The Frontier

A Tulsa transit bus station, S. Denver Ave. KASSIE MCCLUNG/The Frontier

Drivers fired by Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority for embezzlement in 2014 are alleging that the decision by the District Attorney’s Office to file charges was politically motivated.

Emails recently discovered by the plaintiffs show MTTA general manager Bill Cartwright asking city manager Jim Twombly to “help us get” charges filed on three bus drivers.

“Can you see if you can help us get these things to help us fight these drivers’ unemployment claims,” the email from Cartwright to Twombly asked.

In light of the new evidence, six former Tulsa Transit bus drivers are seeking new testimony and sanction in a lawsuit filed in 2015, accusing the Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority and three administrators of violating their civil rights.

In November 2015, the drivers filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. Northern District Court that alleges they were fired, extorted, falsely arrested and jailed because of racial discrimination.

The drivers were accused of fraudulently printing about 10,800 “2 Ride” courtesy passes worth more than $40,000 between August 2014 and November 2014. Three of the drivers were arrested and charged with single counts of embezzlement.

Tulsa Transit’s “2 Ride” program allowed bus drivers to issue courtesy passes to customers who received poor service, such as in a situation where a bus was delayed.

The drivers filed a motion for sanctions against MTTA in late July, accusing the department of withholding information and documents and destroying evidence.

Defendants are listed as MTTA, Cartwright, operations manager Michael Colbert and MTTA human resources director Debbie Mulkey.

The motion alleges that Cartwright asked Twombly to put pressure on the District Attorney’s Office to file charges against the former drivers.

Cartwright emailed Twombly in December 2014, asking Twombly if he would help to get the District Attorney’s Office to file charges on the drivers, the motion shows. Charges were filed the same day.

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A spokeswoman for the city of Tulsa said the city does not comment on pending litigation.

The Tulsa Police Department presented the embezzlement case to the District Attorney’s Office two weeks before charges were filed, said Susan Witt, community outreach director for the District Attorney’s Office.

An attorney approved embezzlement charges nine days before they were filed, Witt said in an email. The filing was delayed because the defendants were not in custody when the District Attorney’s Office received the police reports, she said.

“As an out-of custody case, the clerical preparation would be a lower priority behind ‘rush’ filings in violent crimes where a defendant was in custody and might be released from custody if charges were not timely filed,” Witt said.

The motion also accused MTTA of attempting to bypass the Oklahoma Open Records Act.

In emails between Cartwright and Twombly, Cartwright asks Twombly to help him obtain police records related to the embezzlement case without a subpoena or court order. Cartwright’s request was ultimately denied.

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The motion alleges MTTA purposely withheld the emails for more than two months and only produced a portion of those requested for the case. Plaintiffs became aware of the other emails when the city produced them through a subpoena, according to the motion.

The motion also accused defendants of deleting text messages relevant to the case when they knew litigation was possible.

In light of the newly found evidence, the plaintiffs’ motion requested Cartwright and Mulkey give new testimony.

The former drivers are represented by attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, of the law firm Riggs, Abney, Neal, Turpen, Orbison and Lewis.

When contacted, Solomon-Simmons said he couldn’t comment but pointed to the motion for sanctions that outlines how MTTA potentially withheld highly relevant emails for more than two months.

Federal lawsuit
The federal lawsuit filed in November 2015 alleges the drivers were fired, extorted, falsely arrested, detained and imprisoned without probable cause and due process because of racial discrimination.

Listed as the plaintiffs are Justin Copeland, Lawrence Morgan, Kenneth Speed, John B. Smith, Beverly Drew and Leroy King.

Three of the drivers: Copeland, 64; Speed, 61; and Morgan, 58, were arrested at MTTA, 515 S. Rockford Ave., on November 2014 and then charged with embezzlement.

In April 2015, Special Judge Clifford Smith dismissed the embezzlement charges, citing the state failed to show criminal intent. The state appealed the ruling, but District Judge Sharon Holmes overruled the motion.

Prosecutors alleged the drivers fraudulently printed about 10,800 “2 Ride” courtesy passes worth more than $40,000 between August 2014 and November 2014.

The dismissed charges accused Copeland of fraudulently printing 1,255 coupons worth $4,392.50. They also accused Morgan of printing 630 coupons worth $2,205 and accused Speed of printing 8,911 coupons worth $31,188.50.

A longtime bus driver first noticed passengers had an unusually high number of courtesy passes in November 2014, according to a motion filed by the plaintiffs. MTTA provided Tulsa police with video showing several of the defendants printing off courtesy passes with no customers in sight.

Jo Anne Deaton, an attorney representing the defendants, said she couldn’t comment in detail on any pending litigation.

“We strongly believe the evidence speaks for itself and fully supports MTTA’s decisions in this case,” she said.

The lawsuit notes that all drivers are black and were fully trained and experienced bus drivers.

The federal lawsuit accuses MTTA of failing to punish other drivers who were engaging in the same behavior.

The lawsuit also alleges that the drivers were put under false arrest and threatened with being booked into jail and prosecuted if they didn’t repay lost revenue.

Three of the former drivers — Smith, Drew and King — were fired, but not charged, and paid the lost revenue in cash, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit argues that the “2 Ride” courtesy passes have no monetary value associated with them.

Drivers told MTTA executives and Tulsa police detectives that they didn’t know they were doing anything wrong by printing courtesy passes and were handing out passes for convenience, as they were trained to do.