Non-lawyers represented Tulsa County in dozens of criminal cases, report states

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The Tulsa County Court House. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier
The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office used employees who were not authorized to practice law to prosecute dozens of misdemeanor cases between November 2017 and November 2018, including some jury trials, the district attorney’s office admitted in a response to a bar complaint about the issue.

The employees were all serving as interns and had either taken the bar exam or were planning to take it in the future, the complaint states. All five interns — Kelly Sweeney, Randall Young, Johnnie James, Christopher “Max” Deane and Michael Shouse — were assigned to assistant district attorney Tara Jack when she served as director of the Traffic and Misdemeanor Division of the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office.

James told The Frontier he had been granted a provisional law license prior to working for the district attorney’s office that covered his time there.

“As Director, (Jack) had direct supervisory authority over the non-lawyer employees in the Misdemeanor Division including law students and recent law school graduates,” the complaint states.

Jack is accused in the complaint of professional misconduct. There were more than 150 cases listed on the complaint, though some of the cases involved more than one of the five employees identified as having worked on cases inappropriately. The complaint is set to be heard before a “three-member trial panel” in Tulsa March 11-13, court records show. 

Sally Van Schenck, the director of communications and community outreach at the DA’s office, declined to say if the five people mentioned in the complaint remain employed by the Tulsa County District Attorney’s office. 

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said in a statement: “We were made aware of the concerns and we immediately investigated and took corrective action.  However, we cannot discuss in particularity personnel matters.”

“Based on the ongoing nature of the complaint and investigation, our office does not have a comment at this time,” Van Schenck wrote in an email.

Court records show the five interns were listed as attorneys representing the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office — and often were listed as the only attorney present representing the state — at scores of criminal misdemeanor hearings and even at some misdemeanor jury and non-jury trials.

The complaint and response list around 67 separate specific case numbers in which an unauthorized intern represented the state at a hearing or trial, though the complaint alleges that happened in at least 156 instances.

In one 2018 case, in which a defendant was charged with driving under the influence and running a stop sign, a non-attorney intern was listed as representing the state at jury trial along with an assistant district attorney. Though the jury found the defendant not guilty of the DUI and guilty of running a stop sign, months later, in February 2019 and after defense attorneys had complained about the issue, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler filed a “nunc pro tunc” application in the case, which is used to correct earlier clerical errors, requesting that the case be dismissed “in the best interest of justice.”

Most of the other cases listed in the complaint against Kunzweiler’s office and in the office’s response have not been dismissed, and many have already been completed or expunged, court records show.

Jack, in an official response to the complaint, told the Oklahoma Supreme Court she was unaware that the employees did not hold legal intern licenses and was “mortified, embarrassed, and sickened.”

“I will do everything in my control to make sure that this NEVER happens again,” Jack wrote in her response. “I am so sorry that this happened.”

Jack said that in response to what happened she had developed an intern handbook, an assistant district attorney handbook and “will personally go over with them before they even get a place to sit.”

“It lays out in clear language what an unlicensed and licensed intern can or cannot do,” Jack wrote. “I will read the handbook to them and they will acknowledge that they have read and understand it all.”

Jack was moved in August 2019 from her misdemeanor docket to the Gang Specialty Unit, she said.

The complaint alleges that Sweeney, who allegedly represented in the state in almost half of the more than 150 cases listed in the complaint, was employed by the DA’s office in August 2018 after having graduated from the University of Tulsa School of Law. Sweeney had taken the bar exam but had not learned of the results, the complaint states.

She learned in September 2018 that she had failed the bar exam, the complaint states, but still represented the state in cases, including a non-jury trial on Oct. 12, 2018. The following month, despite knowing she had failed the bar exam, Sweeney questioned jurors, gave opening and closing statements and examined witnesses, the complaint states.

It wasn’t until Nov. 13, when Special Judge April Seibert questioned her on her status as a practicing attorney that Sweeney, stopped, according to the complaint.

Jack, in her response, said she met with Sweeney and Seibert on Nov. 13 and learned there that Sweeney had represented the state a week prior in a jury trial.

“I was astonished at the information I had just received and wondered on what planet she would think it was ok for her to participate in a trial.”

Jack said she then limited Sweeney’s responsibilities and began to “micro manage everything she does.”

Similar situations played out with at least four other employees. Randall Young was employed by the DA’s office in the spring of 2018 but did not have a legal intern license and did not pass the bar until Sept. 7, 2018, according to the complaint.

He was sworn in to practice law in Oklahoma on Sept. 25, 2018. But Young represented the state in “more than 21 cases,” including at least one jury trial, between May and August of 2018, the complaint states.

Jack said in her response that she “was confused” when she heard that Young was being investigated for unauthorized practice of law because she “believed he was a licensed legal intern at the time.”

Jack said that after learning from Young that he did not have an intern’s license, she went to First Assistant District Attorney Erick Grayless, who is responsible for the intern program at the DA’s office, and said: “I thought Randall had his intern’s license.”

Grayless, Jack wrote, replied “I will have to check.”

Johnnie James was sworn in to practice law in Oklahoma on April 17, 2018, yet had already represented the state in more than 20 criminal misdemeanor cases, the complaint states.

Christopher Deane was sworn in the same day as James, but at that point had represented the state in “approximately 17 criminal misdemeanor cases.”

Michael Shouse was sworn in to practice law on Sept. 25, 2018, yet had already made court appearances “in approximately 27 criminal misdemeanor cases.”

Jack said that during the time frame these incidents occurred that she delegated responsibilities that she should not have and “trusted other ADA’s would know what interns could do and not do.”

“I, also, trusted that interns, licensed or not licensed, would know what they could do and not do,” she wrote.

“I am embarrassed and regret that this occurred,” she wrote. “I have been a lawyer for 18 years and I have always strived to be the best attorney I could be and I take my ethical duties very seriously … I am committed to doing everything in my power to make sure this never happens again.”

The DA’s office, in response to the incidents, implemented a policy that all interns wear colored badges in the courthouse — green for licensed legal interns and red for all other interns, Jack told the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Grayless, Jack said, now goes over the intern handbook with all interns “that addresses what they can and cannot do,” Jack wrote.

Interns and ADAs must also meet with Jack to read and sign a copy of “Legal guidelines for Intern Work,” and the “ADA’s guide to interns handbook,” Jack wrote.

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Dylan Goforth

Editor in Chief/Staff Writer

Dylan has two kids, three dogs, and no time to himself. He's fueled by QuikTrip and Twitter. Contact: dylan@readfrontier.com or 918-931-9405.
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