From investigating pandemic spending to scrutinizing criminal prosecutions, we sought to hold Oklahoma public officials accountable.
I worked on this story for The Frontier and Boltsmag. I had actually been kicking around ideas for ways to write about this race when Boltsmag reached out and asked if I would be interested in covering it. After talking with their editors a bit, it clicked. David Prater, a longtime prosecutor with a big personality, was leaving office. The void he left behind would be filled by one of two people — a conservative firebrand who had once threatened to set himself on fire over a bill proposing a pay raise for state Supreme Court justices he felt like hadn’t done enough to end abortion access, or a liberal former prosecutor turned defense attorney.
I talked to both Kevin Calvey and Vicki Behenna multiple times while they campaigned and it was interesting to see the different ways they approached election season. Oklahoma County is increasingly a “purple” county and perhaps was always going to go with a Democrat. I felt like both candidates tried to moderate themselves somewhat in interviews and in a debate they did with the local news outlet NonDoc.
When I interviewed Calvey, I expected him to resemble the bushy-bearded, outspoken conservative I’d read so much about. But he mainly wanted to talk about who he believes we shouldn’t send to prison — people who can’t afford fines and fees. He did save time to talk about dropping charges against police officers who shot and killed a 15-year-old boy in 2021.
Behenna meanwhile seemed to want to downplay any “soft-on-crime” tag she might have gotten running as a Democrat prosecutor.
The race was important because the winner would likely helm the criminal justice ship in Oklahoma County for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, Behenna was elected by a fairly wide margin.
Many states are transitioning away from the death penalty. But Oklahoma is one of just five states that carried out executions in 2022. Oklahoma is leaning all the way in and has plans to execute about half of its death row before 2024.
The state even resumed executions prior to a federal judge ruling on whether the state’s execution protocol was even legal. The court later found Oklahoma protocol was legally sound.
Attorneys who represented death row inmates wanted more knowledge about how people died during Oklahoma executions. The state uses a three-drug protocol that sedates the inmate, stops their breathing and their heart. Some have questioned the effectiveness of the sedative midazolam because it’s not a painkiller. Inmates who received midazolam convulse, gasp, cough and wheeze during executions — possibly from excess fluid in the lungs.
I wanted to know more about the first two men Oklahoma put to death with its new protocol. Autopsy reports showed that John Grant and Bigler Stouffer both had excess fluid in their lungs. A normal set of lungs weighs about 900-1000 grams. Grant’s lungs weighed 1390 grams, according to an autopsy report. Stouffer’s lungs weighed 1510 grams, according to his autopsy report.
It’s crucial for people to understand how death row inmates die at the hands of the state. There is still widespread public support in Oklahoma for the death penalty and it appears the state is primed to conduct the most executions in the county in the next few years. A full understanding of what happens inside the death chamber is important.
When most of us think about a health care visit, we probably picture driving to a clinic, and then to the nearest pharmacy to pick up our prescriptions before snuggling into the couch, maybe after ordering takeout.
It’s likely you have family or friends to help if you need to stay in a hospital and when you continue your recovery at home.
But for people experiencing homelessness, health care interactions are usually visits to the emergency room that frequently end with a walk or cab ride back to a shelter that doesn’t have nursing care.
The gap in services can mean the difference between life or death for vulnerable people. But finding solutions and funding have been difficult. Oklahoma County now has a small respite shelter to help people who require care after a hospital stay, but there aren’t enough beds.
I sought to include nuance in my story while also holding hospitals accountable. Understanding the problems our neighbors face helps build stronger communities.
Federal relief money floated everywhere during the pandemic, and it wasn’t always clear how state agencies used it.
Oklahoma received billions in federal aid meant for health care, education and economic recovery. The question for many officials became how to spend that money in alignment with federal regulations and deadlines but also on how to direct funds to projects that might only be loosely eligible.
In one instance early in the pandemic, the Oklahoma State Department of Health used at least $30 million in pandemic relief funds to cover payroll costs, which was an approved use under federal rules. The move freed up other money for things like relocating a lab that performs vital public health testing. After the lab moved, there were problems handling testing for newborns and COVID-19.
I felt motivated to let Oklahomans know how the state decided to spend dollars meant to help recover from the pandemic, especially since the lab’s relocation has been plagued with problems. To make the process of money more transparent, lawmakers took a new approach with later rounds of federal funds that gave the Legislature more say in how money was spent.
I worked in partnership with The Washington Post, The Marshall Project and AL.com to help document cases of women criminally prosecuted after miscarriages or stillbirths in Oklahoma and nationwide. Medical professionals widely condemn prosecuting women, because it can keep them from seeking treatment and prenatal care. The project required months of chasing down court records in rural counties and poring over autopsy reports.
We highlighted the case of Ashley Traister, who was facing up-to-life in prison for manslaughter after her stillborn-son tested positive for methamphetamine. Traister was a survivor of domestic violence and her former partner got her addicted to methamphetamine. She used drugs to cope with the abuse.
Traister has since gotten sober, got a job and began working to win back custody of her other child. After the story was published, the local district attorney who had previously aggressively prosecuted women like Traister allowed her to plead guilty to a lesser charge and she received probation.
He previously told a judge that Traister should serve prison time. I believe the story cast some much-need public scrutiny on Traister’s case and also shed light on some of the harms of prosecuting women.
I found many cases of women in Kay County charged with child neglect — a serious felony — after their babies tested positive for maternal marijuana use at birth. Some of the women even had medical marijuana cards, meaning they could legally use cannabis with a doctor’s recommendation.
I met Amanda Aguilar, a young mother who faced a felony conviction for using cannabis legally — even after she gave birth to a healthy baby and a child welfare worker determined that her children were happy and well-cared for in her home.
I believe Aguilar’s story is important because it highlights how prosecutors can seek to punish mothers for behaviors that aren’t necessarily illegal, but go against societal expectations.
This story was the first time The Frontier teamed up with Oklahoma Watch for an in-depth investigation. We examined how the state sent federal educational relief money to a for-profit Florida company for families to buy school supplies. Parents ended up purchasing many questionable items including home appliances and video game consoles.
I, along with Frontier reporter Reese Gorman and Oklahoma Watch reporter Jennifer Palmer, spent days going through thousands of rows of spending data, emails and other documents in addition to conducting numerous interviews.
In the end, we found little oversight by state officials for how the money was used. A subsequent federal audit of the program confirmed our findings. And when incoming State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters tried to distance himself from the problems with the program, we were able to show how he had explicitly authorized “blanket approval” for parents to make purchases.
For the second story in The Frontier’s collaboration with Oklahoma Watch, we examined how the educational nonprofit Every Kid Counts Oklahoma paid Walters at least a $120,000 salary even as he served as Gov. Kevin Stitt’s Secretary of Education.
Using Every Kid Counts Oklahoma’s tax returns, we were able to find several of the organizations’ donors, which mostly turned out to be school voucher advocacy groups. We were also able to demonstrate how many of the ideas Walters’ has championed came directly from some of those advocacy groups, and how those groups were quietly assisting Walters in implementing pandemic assistance programs for families using federal money. Internal documents we reviewed showed that Walter’s compensation as CEO of Every Kid Counts Oklahoma was significantly more than his state salary, although this had never been reported or viewed as a potential conflict of interest by the Stitt administration.
I think showing readers exactly how money flowed from advocacy groups to one of the state’s top officials was especially eye-opening for some.
Over the course of this election year, I was able to travel to every corner of Oklahoma on the campaign trail. School vouchers were a major talking point in the election and I got to witness how rural Oklahoma was reacting during some campaign stops.
This story came from spending a day in western Oklahoma with Gov. Kevin Stitt and listening to him take questions, and at times screams from voters about his voucher plan. Stitt would still end up winning in rural parts of the state handily.
This story brought new details of the Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen scandal to light. I obtained emails showing that months before publicly seeking bids, Oklahoma tourism officials struck a deal with Swadley’s that ensured the restaurant company would get a state contract and would “make money from day one.” The details of the highly scrutinized contract were ironed out and negotiated before it was publicized that Oklahoma was looking for a new restaurant vendor for state parks.