Resignation of Fallin’s general counsel tied to efforts to free Robert Bates

Attorney Derek Chance was paid $25,000 to seek commutation of Robert Bates' sentence after Bates' family was referred to him by his wife, Fallin's general counsel.

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Jennifer Chance, left, and Derek Chance, right. Courtesy

When relatives of former Reserve Deputy Robert Bates called Gov. Mary Fallin’s office last year to ask whether Fallin would commute his sentence, the governor’s deputy general counsel, Jennifer Chance, suggested they hire her husband as a criminal defense attorney, an investigation by The Frontier has found.

Bates’ family took Chance’s advice, paying attorney Garin Derek Chance $25,000 to seek a commutation, which was denied in November. While the Pardon and Parole Board can recommend commutation, only the governor can commute a sentence, an action that is exceedingly rare.

Some members of Bates’ family grew unhappy about progress on Bates’ commutation request and contacted Fallin’s office in recent weeks, The Frontier has learned. Fallin was reportedly not aware that her general counsel had referred Bates’ family to her husband.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Chance, named Fallin’s general counsel in October, took an unexpected leave of absence two weeks ago and resigned last week, records show.

Sources close to the situation provided details about Jennifer Chance’s referral of the inquiry to her husband as well as actions by Fallin’s office after the governor learned about the incident. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity and The Frontier also gathered public records to corroborate the allegations.

Jennifer and Derek Chance could not be reached for comment for this story. A spokesman for Fallin said the governor’s office generally does not comment on personnel issues.

After Bates was convicted of second-degree manslaughter in the 2015 shooting death of Eric Harris, one of his relatives contacted the governor’s office to inquire about applying for a commutation.

Robert Bates walks into court with his wife, Charlotte, before his conviction in the death of Eric Harris. MICHAEL WYKE/The Frontier

Bates, a 73-year-old insurance executive, was a volunteer reserve deputy for the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office and a wealthy supporter of Sheriff Stanley Glanz. He claimed he intended to use his Taser on Harris, who had already been subdued, but accidentally shot him.

Bates was sentenced to four years in prison — the maximum allowable punishment — last May.

State law gives Fallin sole authority to commute a sentence, though such requests are often long-shots and rarely end in the offender being released from prison. Fallin commuted a man’s sentence from life without parole on a drug trafficking conviction to life with the possibility of parole.

Of the hundreds of requests for commutation every year, only a few make it to the governor’s desk. Bates’ application for commutation was turned down by the Pardon and Parole Board in November and again in February.

Delynn Fudge, executive director of the state Pardon and Parole Board, said 515 commutations were requested in fiscal year 2016. Of those requests, the board recommended just 28 cases to Fallin.

Of those 28, Fallin acted on only 15 applications.

“A commutation is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Fudge said. “It’s not an avenue to leave prison early, it’s really to correct an unjust or excessive sentence.

“That should be rare, because those (type of sentences) should not be occurring. When they do, this is the avenue for recourse.”

The state Pardon and Parole Board, which screens the applications, has a “frequently asked questions” section on its website about commutations.

“Does an applicant need a lawyer to file for a commutation?” the website states. “No, an applicant does not need a lawyer to apply for a commutation.”

When questioned about referring Bates’ family to her husband, Jennifer Chance reportedly said she consulted the state Ethics Commission and attorney general’s office in advance and received clearance.

However, officials with the AG’s office and the Ethics Commission told the governor’s office they had no documentation of any such conversation, sources told The Frontier.

During Bates’ sentencing hearing in May, several relatives testified they feared he would not survive in prison due to health issues. Bates is being held in a mental health unit of Joseph Harp Correctional Center, the largest medium-security prison in the state.

In an appeal filed Feb. 21, attorney Clark Brewster asked the state Court of Criminal Appeals to throw out Bates’ conviction and order a new trial.

The appeal cites several issues, including that jurors were allowed to watch a video in which deputies yelled “fuck your breath” and other profanities at Harris after he was shot.

Rising influence

At a time when Derek Chance was taking on increasingly high-profile cases as a defense attorney, his wife was becoming one of Oklahoma County’s top prosecutors.

Both Derek and Jennifer Chance, 42, graduated from the University of Oklahoma’s law school in 2001.

In 2011, Chance prosecuted a defendant charged in a controversial case: Jerome Ersland, an Oklahoma City pharmacist who shot and killed a would-be robber.

Surveillance video that showed Ersland standing over 16-year-old Antwon Parker and shooting him several times. Ersland argued self-defense but Chance convinced a jury otherwise and he was convicted on a murder charge.

Ersland is currently serving a life sentence and reportedly is Bates’ cellmate at Joseph Harp.

Around that same time, Chance’s husband was taking on clients including former Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Morgan, who was convicted in 2012 on bribery charges.

Two years later, Derek Chance was representing Morgan before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, According to The Oklahoman, 

Derek Chance also represented Lawrence Watts, who was serving a 25-year prison term for first-degree manslaughter. Lawrence Watts was convicted in the 2003 death of Anthony Greco, shot outside Lawrence Watts’ restaurant in Eufaula.

Watts is the brother of J.C. Watts, a former University of Oklahoma quarterback, former commissioner for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and former U.S. representative for Oklahoma.

Derek Chance’s efforts to get Lawrence Watts’ sentence commuted met with some success. The Pardon and Parole Board initially ruled in Watts’ favor and a member of the governor’s staff contacted the victim’s brother.

According to news accounts, Greco’s brother said commuting the sentence would be “a slap in the face” to the family. Fallin later declined to alter Lawrence Watts’ prison term.

Watts’ crime is among the state’s crimes requiring offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentences.

Derek Chance also represented Luis Ruiz, a Bethany man who was charged with the mutilation murder of Carina Saunders. Ruiz was initially suspected of the crime and was held in jail for eight months before the charges against him were dropped in a scandal that rocked the Bethany Police Department and ended in the loss of several jobs.

In 2012, Derek Chance represented University of Tulsa Athletic Director Ross Parmley after Parmley was suspended for gambling on sports, an NCAA violation. Parmley was eventually fired from the university.

In 2013, Jennifer Chance left the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office to join Fallin’s staff as a deputy general counsel.

Steve Mullins, general counsel at the time, resigned last year, several months after testifying before a grand jury investigating a lethal injection drug mixup.

In October, Jennifer Chance was promoted from her position as Fallin’s deputy general counsel to general counsel, the top legal counselor to the governor. Her annual salary following the promotion rose from just more than $81,000 a year to $95,000, one of the largest salaries in the governor’s office.

“Jennifer Chance is a highly-skilled attorney who has proven herself more than capable of filling one of the most important roles in state government as the governor’s general counsel,” Fallin said in a release at the time of the promotion.

Five months later, Chance would resign from the office.

“After prayerful consideration, I have decided to pursue other opportunities,” Chance wrote in her March 8 resignation letter. “It has been my privilege and honor to serve as your general counsel, and I wish you continued success.”

Jennifer Chance actually had taken a sudden leave of absence two weeks earlier.

The attorney general’s office contacted attorneys for The Frontier on Feb. 23, stating that Chance was taking an unexpected leave of absence.

The email related to a planned hearing in an open records lawsuit filed by The Frontier’s editor and her former employer, the Tulsa World, over the 2014 botched execution of Clayton Lockett. (A judge has ordered Fallin to turn over emails her office has withheld for review.)

At the same time his wife’s job was in flux, Derek Chance was also facing changes in employment.

Internet searches of his name turn up references to the Babbit, Mitchell & Chance law firm in Oklahoma City as well as images showing his name on the outside of building.

LinkedIn profiles for Derek Chance and an attorney still with the firm, Greg Mitchell, also list the firm’s name as Babbit Mitchell Chance.

The law firm is now called Babbit, Mitchell & Ogle, and employees there told The Frontier on Wednesday that Chance’s departure from the firm was “recent.”

Derek Chance appears to now be working for himself. His website, www.derekchancelaw.com, features a glitzy image of high-rise buildings in downtown Oklahoma City. His address is listed as 416 NW 23rd Street, a small one-story, gray building across the street from Cheever’s Cafe, a well-known Oklahoma City eatery.

Bates’ family hopes for leniency

The commutation efforts are not the family’s first efforts to get Bates out of prison. Attempts began before Bates even entered Oklahoma Department of Corrections custody.

During Bates’ sentencing hearing last May, he was joined by his wife, Charlotte, and Brewster in arguing that a prison term would effectively be a death sentence for the aging former insurance executive.

Bates, who had been held in the Tulsa County Jail at that point for less than two weeks, said that his failing health would likely mean that he would die in prison.

His family pleaded for leniency, but District Judge William Musseman eventually sided with jurors who recommended Bates spend four years in prison.

“Mr. Bates on that day killed a person because he didn’t know what weapon he had in his hands,” Musseman said at the time. “Period … He put himself in that position voluntarily.”

Next month, Bates will be eligible for a one-year judicial review of his sentence.

Deborah Glanz, the wife of former Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz, said in a Facebook post last year that Stanley Glanz had spoken with Pete Regan, Oklahoma Transportation commissioner for District 8, in an attempt to reach Fallin on Bates’ behalf.

“Since the campaign is over, Stanley thinks we can get something done,” Deborah Glanz wrote in the post.

She and her husband were far from alone in their efforts. Court records show several letters have been written to Musseman since that sentencing in an effort to help Bates.

Bates’ daughter Leslie McCray wrote Musseman a letter last December asking for leniency and consideration of a judicial review, saying her goal was “to see (Bates) through to the other side of these circumstances.”

McCrary wrote that while at the Lexington Correctional Facility (all new DOC inmates go through assessment there before being transferred to a longer-term prison,) Bates’ cell was “attacked by several prisoners in an attempted assassination.”

Department of Corrections officials have not confirmed the alleged attack, but McCrary repeated the allegation in another letter to the Pardon and Parole Board.

Several other letters were attached to a commutation request made on Bates’ behalf.

Diane Dixon, who said in her letter that she worked for Bates for “over 14 years,” asked for her former boss to eventually be paroled.

She said knew Bates as a “good and decent man,” and said that a week before the Harris shooting, Bates was in Sand Springs providing food and water “at his own expense” to tornado survivors.

Another letter, written by an Inola woman named Margarett Jackson, noted Bates was known for “anonymously donating money and going out of his way to help others.”

A pre-sentence investigation attached to a commutation request filed on Bates’ behalf contains pages of anecdotes of the former insurance executive providing for the less-fortunate.

Under “Offender Characteristics,” the investigator mentioned incidents where Bates paid for items for a pregnant waitress who could not afford “anything for (her) baby,” or where Bates rented an apartment and purchased furniture for a young homeless woman and child.

Bates has expressed remorse for his role in Harris’ death. In an interview with NBC News, he called the shooting a “horrible mistake.” Bates told NBC he would like to tell Harris’ family “that I’m so sorry that it happened.”

“It keeps me up at night. I can’t sleep,” he said, crying.

In the “Acceptance of Responsibility” section of the attached pre-sentence investigation, it states that Bates “has accepted responsibility (for the Harris shooting) from the moment it happened.”

“He feels horrible about the death of (Harris.) He prays to God for forgiveness many times each day.”

The Pardon and Parole Board supplied both commutation to The Frontier following an Open Records Act request. The difference between the two applications is stark.

Derek Chance filed the first application last September, while McCrary filed the subsequent application on her own last December.

The application Chance filled out is at times bare-bones. Under “Account of Offense,” where the applicant is supposed to provide a detailed explanation of the crime committed, Chance appears to have merely copied and pasted the statement Bates gave to investigators in the days after the shooting.

Other attachments appear to be scanned documents that were written by Bates’ criminal defense lawyers.

Also, in the request filed by Chance, under a section where the offender is required to list aliases or other names, Chance typed “n/a.”

Bates, who was adopted as a young child, was born “Andrew Anderson,” something he acknowledges in the request compiled months later by McCrary.

“I was born Andrew Anderson at birth,” Bates writes. “I was adopted (by) Les and Mary Bates and my name was changed to Robert Charles Bates. I have been Robert Charles Bates since the adoption took place.”

By comparison, McCrary’s request is much more detailed, including personal details and several statements from Bates himself.

There are more discrepancies. Chance wrote that Bates married his first wife, who he identifies as “Francis Cruce,” in 1962. Bates’ first wife was actually named “Francey Cruce,” and McCrary’s request notes the two were married in 1964.

Questions remain

It’s unclear what, if anything, will occur as a result of Jennifer Chance referring legal business to her husband. It’s also unclear whether Derek Chance has been asked to repay the family’s $25,000 or if they have retained another attorney to continue their quest for commutation.

Ashley Kemp, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, said she could not comment on whether any complaints have been filed related to Jennifer Chance.

“We have subpoena power if a case is opened. We can make a determination if a violation was committed, can enter into settlement discussions or file a lawsuit in district court,” Kemp said.

“Only district court can make violation determination; we don’t determine that. We just say what happened.”

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Ziva Branstetter

Editor in Chief / Staff Writer

Ziva maintains she was always too nosy to be anything other than a reporter. Though she's on a new adventure with The Frontier, she spent more than 25 years in the newspaper business, making politicians nervous and making sure readers got the truth. Contact: ziva@readfrontier.com or 918-520-0406.
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