By DYLAN GOFORTH
Days ahead of their self-imposed deadline, county election board officials broke some news Tuesday afternoon: 6,647 signatures requesting a grand jury investigation of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office had been verified and turned over to the court clerk’s office.
The number of signatures is 1,647 more than were needed to impanel a grand jury.
Marq Lewis, founder of We The People Oklahoma— the group behind the grand jury petition drive— had been sweating since he and his attorney, Laurie Phillips, turned in 510 pages of signatures on Friday.
The group began collecting the signatures in May, more than a month after Robert Bates, a reserve deputy with the sheriff’s office, was recorded shooting Eric Harris during a botched gun sting. Harris, the sheriff’s office said, was the focus of an undercover operation and was selling a stolen gun to deputies before the shooting.
Harris fled from the arrest and was tackled by two deputies on the task force, Joseph Byars and Michael Huckeby. Bates then reportedly confused his handgun for a Taser and shot Harris below the right armpit.
Harris died about an hour after he was shot. Eleven days later, Bates charged with second-degree manslaughter.
A week later, allegations surfaced that Bates — a wealthy donor to TCSO and a longtime friend of Stanley Glanz— had his training records falsified by the sheriff’s office. Weeks later, a bombshell 2009 TCSO internal affairs document leaked supporting employees’ claims that Bates was not properly trained, something top officials had previously denied. Several employees complained that the insurance salesman was acting beyond the duties of a reserve deputy, including making traffic stops without a supervisor.
The fallout placed intense scrutiny on the sheriff’s office. Glanz forced two of his top-ranked deputies — Undersheriff Tim Albin and Capt. Tom Huckeby — to resign, and vowed to pay closer attention to his duties as sheriff.
Glanz also announced that he would not be seeking re-election when his current term ends.
But it now appears he and the sheriff’s office will be facing even more scrutiny, this time from a grand jury.
To get a grand jury impaneled, Lewis needed 5,000 signatures, and the group turned in more than 8,000 on Friday. In order to be verified by the election board, however, the person signing their name to the petition had to be a registered Tulsa County voter.
Further, the signature had to be legible. Those two qualifications have tripped up grand jury attempts in the past in Oklahoma.
But Lewis’ petition drive ended well ahead of the 5,000 verified signatures needed.
That doesn’t mean the waiting game is over, though. District Judge Rebecca Nightingale now has 30 days to accept the signatures and move the process of a grand jury investigation forward.
Terry Simonson, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, did not immediately issue a response or return calls seeking comment Tuesday afternoon.
On Friday, attorney John Carwile appeared in court on behalf of sheriff Stanley Glanz to fight Phillips’ attempt to get the signature documents placed under seal.
Phillips argued — and We The People Oklahoma volunteers testified— that petition circulators were threatened both verbally and physically while collection signatures. Phillips said that by making all 8,952 signatures public, it would be placing those who circulated the petition and those who signed it at risk.
Nightingale ruled in favor of Carwile, stating that while she wasn’t always in agreement with how open some records are, “that’s the age we live in.”