Less than 24 hours after a report by The Frontier outlined an incident where Preston Doerflinger was accused of choking his wife, he resigned from Gov. Mary Fallin’s cabinet and as interim commissioner of the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
In a statement, Gov. Mary Fallin said Doerflinger’s ex-wife never told her about a 2012 run-in with police in which Doerflinger was accused of choking his now ex-wife.
“I was unaware of the personal situation involving Preston and his ex-wife almost six years ago. Mrs. Doerflinger did not contact my office about this matter,” Fallin said in a statement. “I take domestic violence very seriously, but I will take Mrs. Doerflinger at her word that this matter was not a case of domestic violence. I respect Preston’s decision to move on from his government service, and wish him and his family the best.”
Doerflinger resigned his cabinet position in a phone call to Gov. Mary Fallin on Tuesday, said Shelley Zumwalt, spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
The Board of Health met Tuesday for its monthly meeting with Doerflinger in attendance on Tuesday morning. But after retreating to executive session later in the afternoon, it returned without Doerflinger. Chairwoman Martha Burger then announced that Doerflinger had resigned “effective immediately.”
Brian Downs, the Director of State and Federal Policy for the OSDH will replace Doerflinger as acting interim commissioner. Tony Sellars, spokesman for OSDH, told the media the board hoped to vet potential full-time replacements in the next 30-60 days.
The Board of Health entered into executive session twice on Tuesday, once at 11:45 a.m. to discuss “pending claims,” then again about 45 minutes later to discuss Doerflinger’s employment status.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Tom Gruber, who has acted as counsel for the OSDH, initiated the vote to return to executive session to discuss Doerflinger’s employment status based on “events of the past 24 hours.”
When the board returned, they voted unanimously to accept Doerflinger’s resignation.
Following Tuesday’s meeting, Sellars said that Doerflinger had chosen not to return from executive session because “he had another meeting to attend.”
Brian Downs, OSDH Director of State and Federal Policy, was named acting commissioner by the board.
In a statement, Downs said the agency’s remaining leadership was committed to getting the Health Department “back on sound financial footing.”
“Our entire organization remains focused on protecting the health of all Oklahomans and restoring confidence in this agency,” Downs said.
Doerflinger’s wife, Jill, who filed for divorce from her husband less than a year after the alleged incident, issued a statement to The Frontier characterizing the 2012 police calls as “a bad night six years ago.”
“There are people in serious domestic violence situations who need help and to characterize this situation to theirs lightens the severity of what is happening to them and other victims of domestic violence,” she said in her statement. “What we should be focusing on is how to help families currently struggling. Not using our energy to destroy or make examples of those currently healthy families who had one bad night six years ago.”
In her statement, Fallin praised Doerflinger’s role as one of her top advisors over the past seven years.
“Preston has played a critical role in state government, serving as director of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, and Cabinet secretary of finance, administration and information technology,” Fallin said. “During the past seven years, his efforts saved tax dollars by implementing cost-saving reforms and consolidating state agencies. He also helped guide the Department of Human Services during a critical time when key reforms, such as the Pinnacle Plan, were implemented. I appreciate his service to the state.”
On Monday, The Frontier reported that Doerflinger had been handcuffed by Tulsa Police in 2012 after allegedly choking his wife twice during an argument at their Tulsa home. Police, according to an incident report read to The Frontier, handcuffed Doerflinger for “detainment purposes” as his wife described the alleged incident.
According to the report, Doerflinger’s wife (the couple has since divorced) exited their south Tulsa home “crying, sweating and thanking the officer for arriving” following a 911 call from the residence. According to the police report, Doerflinger’s wife called 911, but her husband took the phone and ended the call.
Doerflinger’s wife told police the two had been in an argument and that Doerflinger, who had just been named interim director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, began to choke her.
She said, according to the report, she then broke free and called 911, but Doerflinger then took the phone away from her and ended the call. She told police Doerflinger then forced her into a laundry room and began again to choke her before officers arrived and she broke free and ran outside.
Officers at the scene reported taking a victim statement from Doerfinger’s wife, who later retracted the statement saying she didn’t want her husband to lose his job with DHS.
The report noted that officers were concerned with Doerflinger’s wife’s safety, and provided her with domestic violence pamphlets and information on how to file a protective order. Doerflinger was removed from handcuffs and then taken to a “hotel of his choice” for the night.
Tulsa Police Department spokesman Sgt. Shane Tuell told The Frontier that officers are met with roadblocks when investigating domestic violence cases in cases where the alleged victims decides not to cooperate.
Tuell said that to file a successful case, officers need a cooperative victim, visual injuries or a third-party witness. With no witness, and with Doerflinger’s wife deciding not to seek charges, Tuell said officers would have needed to see bruising or other injuries in order to make an arrest that night.
Tuell said strangulation injuries at times take 24-48 hours to appear.
But still, Tulsa Police assigned the case to a detective, Andre Baul, who worked in the Family Violence division. Records show the investigation was immediately canceled by Baul’s supervisor, who later retired.
Doerflinger’s checkered legal past
Despite his quick ascension from city of Tulsa auditor to state finance secretary and one of the governor’s top aides, Doerflinger has had a series of high-profile legal missteps over the years.
Doerflinger has had more than 15 traffic violations reaching back to the mid-90s, including multiple violations for speeding, not wearing a seatbelt as well as driving under suspension.
In 2015 he faced a more serious allegation after Oklahoma City Police arrested him on a complaint of actual physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.
Police were told by a passerby that “it looks like a female is being held hostage in a black Range Rover,” according to a police report.
The caller gave police the vehicle’s tag number, and said the woman “was crying and trying to get out as the vehicle drove away.”
When officers arrived they found Doerflinger smelling of alcohol, with “red and watery” eyes and “unsteady” posture.
Last week OSDH CFO Michael Romero — one of the initial whistleblowers who brought attention to the agency’s missteps — resigned. Romero said in his resignation letter he believed that Doerflinger learned of testimony Romero had given a state grand jury through the OSDH’s general counsel, Julie Ezell.
Romero also said Doerflinger angrily confronted him about the testimony he’d given the grand jury, insinuating that the interim OSDH director had been keeping tabs on the confidential testimony given by witnesses.
The OSDH, in a follow-up release, called Romero’s claims false and said Romero had been notified of concerns over his work, to which he had reacted “defensively and aggressively.”
Doerflinger appointed Ezell to her post after he was named interim commissioner of the OSDH.
“The employee was under the clear indication from OSDH general counsel that she was acting as the employee’s attorney in the matter and nonetheless, after the submission of my memo to the interim commissioner, he was apparently capable of fact-checking my points with those made by the employee in that investigative meeting,” Romero wrote. “These matters should be kept confidential by the general counsel and yet this general counsel has been present throughout the grand jury process.”
Josh Cockroft, R-Wanette, chairman of the House of Representatives’ Special Investigation Committee, said in response to Romero’s memo that having Doerflinger “lashing out in anger to an employee who was simply doing his job is concerning.”
The OSDH, in response, called his statements “disappointing,” criticized Cockroft for going to social media “to spread false facts” including stating that Interim Commissioner Doerflinger was “shaking in rage towards a state employee for simply doing his job.”
“It is deeply troubling that rather than being focused on ascertaining the truth, the Chairman of the Committee immediately takes as true slanderous allegations with no attempt to verify their accuracy,” the OSDH said in its release.