By DYLAN GOFORTH
OKLAHOMA CITY — Alone, swamped by nine chairs in the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s hearing room, referee Greg Albert at times appeared amused and frustrated as opposing attorneys butted heads Tuesday about a proposed grand jury investigation of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office.
Albert, who called himself “just an attorney,” laughed when referred to as “your honor” by Laurie Phillips, attorney for We The People Oklahoma. The grassroots group collected more than 6,600 signatures seeking a grand jury investigation of TCSO, an effort Sheriff Stanley Glanz has fought now for nearly two months.
The group began collecting signatures a little more than a month after Eric Harris was shot and killed by Robert Bates, a reserve Tulsa County deputy who volunteered on the agency’s Violent Crimes Task Force. Bates, who was charged with second-degree manslaughter, told investigators he believed he was holding his Taser when he instead pulled out his handgun and shot Harris once under the right arm.
Following Harris’ death, an internal affairs report obtained by The Frontier stated that supervisors at TCSO had ordered Bates to be allowed seemingly free reign as a reserve deputy despite numerous officers questioning whether he had been properly trained. The fallout cost former Undersheriff Tim Albin and ex-Maj. Tom Huckeby their jobs, as Glanz has said he might have “had too much trust” in supervisors underneath him.
Last month, Tulsa County District Court Judge Rebecca Nightingale ordered a grand jury to be impaneled July 20 following weeks of legal wrangling over the grand jury petition. A spokesman for Glanz initially threatened to sue the petitioners, then argued their signatures may be invalidated because hot dogs were served at signature gathering locations. When the signature criteria was judged sufficient, Glanz hired a Tulsa law firm at taxpayer expense to fight the process, a move that drew sharp criticism from the petitioners and some members of the public.
“We never thought the sheriff would fight us in this capacity,” Marq Lewis, founder of We The People Oklahoma said Tuesday following the hearing. “If there’s nothing to hide, why fight? That’s what I believe the citizens are looking at. ‘Why are they fighting this so hard? Just go through the grand jury, if you’re innocent, you’re innocent.'”
Last month, Nightingale ruled that requiring the grassroots group to have a copy of the individual petition attached to every signature page, or even a group of signature pages, rather than having it readily available to view would be “form over substance.”
That argument was repeated Tuesday in Oklahoma City, something that appeared to frustrate the referee who listened to both attorneys.
Albert’s role as referee, he said, was to listen to arguments by both attorneys, then file a report with Oklahoma’s nine Supreme Court Justices, who will “do what they do,” he said. He asked attorneys to just summarize the “main points” of their respective arguments, since they had together submitted “about eight pounds” of paperwork to the justices.
So he appeared frustrated when James McCann, an attorney hired by Glanz, appeared to begin repeating the lengthy arguments made last month in front of Nightingale. McCann asked Albert to read through a brief he had submitted prior to Tuesday’s hearing, and Albert paused, and appeared to leaf through a few random pages before closing the document, and his eyes.
Following Nightingale’s ruling last month, Glanz immediately petitioned the Oklahoma Supreme Court to order a “writ of prohibition,” which would halt that process.
The issue — as summarized by Sheriff’s Office Director of Governmental Affairs Terry Simonson — is that We The People Oklahoma collected its signatures on a page that had the words “Grand Jury Petition” on the top. The actual petition, a 33-page document the group submitted to Nightingale for approval in May, was not affixed to the signature page.
“We’re asking the court to follow the chalk lines, which in this case is the law,” Simonson said. “Once you comply with that, the substance is what happens inside the chalk lines. So form really matters. … If the form doesn’t count, then nobody has any rules to follow.”
Albert told the attorneys he would issue his report “immediately,” though when the justices will come to a decision remains up in the air.
“I can write the report, but I have no idea what the court will do, they’re above me,” Albert said. “There are nine of them, and they’ll get my report, they’ll get your papers and they’ll do what they do, when they do it.”
Vicki Cox, Tulsa County District Court administrator, said 100 juror summons were mailed “weeks ago” in compliance with state law for the grand jury, which is scheduled to begin Monday. She said if the Supreme Court issues a decision before Monday that the grand jury petition is not valid “getting them notified at this point would be a challenge.”
Your financial support for our investigative journalism is now tax deductible. To become a Friend of The Frontier, click here.