BARTLESVILLE — Former Washington and Nowata County District Judge Curtis DeLapp resigned in August amid abuse of power allegations and an Oklahoma Supreme Court inquiry, but his problems may not necessarily be over.
On Thursday at a public Washington County Building Commission meeting, chairman Russell Vaclaw discussed with other board members several checks DeLapp had written from the Building Commission’s fund prior to his resignation.
The Building Commission itself is “an ancient body,” said Vaclaw, who also serves as Washington County Associate District Judge. Vaclaw said counties in the 1960s would create building commissions in order to collect and manage properties they would eventually turn over to county governments for the construction of courthouses. Vaclaw said at the meeting that as far as he knew, Washington County was the only county in Oklahoma that still maintained a building commission, and records show that during last month’s meeting the commission began the process of dissolving itself.
DeLapp apparently wrote at least three “questionable” checks out of the Building Commission fund in the last 18 months, Vaclaw said during the meeting — including a check for nearly $400 to Rib Crib, one check for $164.10 to Walmart, and another for $4,795 to replace a stenotype machine that had been destroyed by water damage caused by a malfunctioning air conditioning unit.
None of those checks had been approved by the committee, Vaclaw said. He also noted that no meeting minutes could be found for at least the final two years of DeLapp’s tenure as Building Commission Chairman — a potential violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act which says that public bodies “shall” maintain minutes of their meetings.
More than $180,000 sits in the Building Commission fund, records show, and those funds are mostly used for maintenance of county buildings. Though the Chairperson can make purchases below $500 which do not have to be approved by the committee members, those purchases must be for property maintenance or repairs.
Assistant District Attorney Will Drake, who attended the meeting on behalf of District Attorney Kevin Buchanan, said that after DeLapp resigned in August, Buchanan noticed the Building Commission checkbook was missing.
As prior chairman, DeLapp had maintained the checkbook and even after his resignation, he had been responsible for making payments for utilities and things of that nature, Drake said. Drake told commission members that Buchanan had requested DeLapp return the checkbook, and it was later discovered DeLapp had written a $395.67 check to Rib Crib on Dec. 17.
That date and purchase coincided with a courthouse Christmas party that was catered by Rib Crib, Drake said. Courthouse employees had pitched in money that was supposed to be used to cater the meal. It’s unclear why the meal was paid for out of the Building Commission fund rather than with the cash collected.
Vaclaw said he later noticed the $164.10 check to Walmart from last January. No receipt was available so it was unclear what the money was for, though Vaclaw said the date — Jan. 26 — coincided with a funeral held for a longtime courthouse employee named Bertha Rogers who died Jan. 19.
Again, courthouse employees had donated money for the funeral, but the check had been written from Building Commission funds.
Vaclaw said it was also determined that DeLapp had written a check out of the Building Commission account for $4,795 on Aug. 20, 2017, for a new stenotype machine for a court reporter whose previous machine had been damaged by a leaky air conditioning unit.
The county’s insurance apparently would not cover the damage to the machine because it was a privately-owned stenotype and did not belong to the courthouse. DeLapp paid for a new one out of public funds, and shortly thereafter the court reporter quit and began working in Tulsa County.
Vaclaw said he had asked DeLapp about the stenotype, and DeLapp had said “the County Commissioners are paying for it.”
“I do recall him saying something about paying for it, but we never had a meeting and never discussed it,” Vaclaw said during Thursday’s meeting.
DeLapp reimbursed the county for the $395.67 spent at Rib Crib, Drake said. He told the commission that Buchanan notified DeLapp about the discrepancy, and the former judge appeared at the DA’s office a day or two later with an envelope containing cash and personal checks that had been written by courthouse employees to help pay for the meal.
It’s unclear if DeLapp had reimbursed the county for the other two checks he had apparently written, and Vaclaw discussed the idea of paying for an audit to be done of the Building Commission account in order to determine if there was other missing money.
DeLapp resigned in August rather than face mounting legal proceedings against him. Earlier this year he had been accused of routinely ordering people held in jail for direct contempt of court, a tactic rarely used by judges that allows them to place someone in jail for up to six months without bond or a hearing.
One woman, named Randa Ludlow, was ordered released from jail by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in March. Ludlow had been placed in jail by DeLapp for allegedly talking and being disruptive in his courtroom.
Chief Justice Douglas Combs, in a petition he wrote against DeLapp, accused the judge of having having backdated a contempt order in Ludlow’s case in order to justify her detention.
DeLapp, Combs wrote, had not filed the “contempt court minutes” as required by law when he ordered Ludlow to jail last year.
After the oral arguments before the Oklahoma Supreme Court on March 2 about that case, DeLapp allegedly called his court clerk and asked her to retrieve Ludlow’s case file, Combs wrote.
DeLapp, Combs said, told his clerk “not to look at the files” so she would not “get involved.”
DeLapp was later recorded on surveillance video looking at the files, unable to find the missing “contempt court minutes,” Combs wrote. DeLapp then left and later called his clerk to claim he had found the missing file that he had allegedly written in November when Ludlow was jailed.
DeLapp then used “ambiguous language” to mislead the Oklahoma Supreme Court into thinking the document was original and not backdated, Combs wrote.
“(DeLapp) in fact created the document while alone in his office on March 2, 2018,” Combs wrote.
When DeLapp resigned he agreed to never again seek appointment or election as a judge in Oklahoma. As part of the agreement he was able to retain his retirement, something his family said on social media was a key part of his decision to resign. Had he gone to trial and lost, he would have also lost his retirement benefits.