There was so much tension floating around the Rogers County courthouse, employees began to fear the walls had ears.
A 2013 petition for a grand jury investigation of District Attorney Janice Steidley alleged that she had bugged employees’ offices to gather intel and oust troublemakers.
The grand jury found no evidence to support this, but apparently it was a widely repeated rumor among the office — perhaps indicating how pervasive the culture of mistrust and suspicion was.
One of the other allegations centered on text messages that Janice Steidley reportedly sent to a deputy sheriff in Mayes County (also part of her district), threatening “war” because of his public criticism of her.
On that matter, the grand jury didn’t find evidence of a law broken, but noted: “Although the exchange between (Janice Steidley) and (the deputy) does not rise to the level of criminal misconduct, it reflects an overarching theme by both sides of systemic institutionalized bullying, and a profound lack of courtesy and professionalism in the dealings between (Steidley) and certain law enforcement agents in Rogers and Mayes County.”
The report included some snippets of their text exchanges:
Janice Steidley: Well that’s what I’m going to ask u, I’ve reached my point you have hit it. Your continuous talking about me and ive had enough so it’s either going to stop or your going to have a war on your hands. Its one thing for people to complain, but when there is no merit and myself and my office have given you more respect then you’ve given I’m done.
Mayes County Deputy Sheriff: I’m don’t know that I’m sure what your talking about [Janice]. Their has been things I haven’t agreed with and there is things that I have that I thought was great. I keep hearing things that people are telling you I’m slamming you and all this but that isn’t true. I will state my opinion on things and sometimes I’m not the most politically correct individual. I have never asked for or attempted to start some kind of war!!! Not sure where your info is coming from but if my statements came across to someone as disrespectful to you I apologize. I voted for you in the first election and I plan to vote for you to have another term. We are here to the same job at the end of the day and that is put criminals in jail.
Janice Steidley: Then if you have a problem with me address it to me instead of to everyone else just as I would do to you. I have been hearing this stuff from many entities for months. And I’m done eating shit sandwiches.
The grand jury interim report stated that while the text messages sent to the deputy sheriff by Janice Steidley “were clearly heated, unpleasant, and both bullying and unprofessional in tone,” she did not intend to “physically threaten” the deputy and he reportedly did not interpret the messages as physically threatening.
Help from higher powers
By September 2014, Diana Thurman began working with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation out of frustration and fear that no one at the Rogers County District Attorney’s Office genuinely intended to help her son.
With the recordings she’d captured of her conversations with the district attorney’s husband, Larry Steidley, and others, she worked with an OSBI agent as part of an ongoing investigation into allegations of wrongdoing by Rogers County officials.
Jessica Brown, a spokeswoman for the OSBI, confirmed to The Frontier the bureau was asked by the Rogers County Sheriff’s Office to open a bribery and conspiracy investigation on Sept. 1, 2014.
“OSBI delivered the final report to the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office August 20, 2015. Further comment must come from the Attorney General’s Office,” Brown emailed The Frontier.
Numerous sources confirmed to The Frontier the OSBI investigated the Steidleys’ actions.
At some point, the attorney general reviewed the investigation and no criminal charges have been filed in connection with these claims, sources told The Frontier.
“It’s the policy of the AG’s office not to discuss or comment on investigations,” said Aaron Cooper, a spokesman for Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.
Thurman’s recorded phone conversations include several chats with OSBI Special Agent Jeremy Yerton, where it sounds as if he’s dodging her on direct questions about Pruitt’s involvement, and she grows frustrated.
Diana: Until somebody can give me some definitive answers, I’m not doing anything else…
I’m done and done and done and done. So all this yanking me around … you can just tell him, that’s not fair to me. I’ve done everything the Steidleys wanted me to do … well that they thought I was doing, to keep them on the hook. I’ve done everything you guys have wanted me to do to try to get that case going. And I’m getting nothing out of this, nothing back.
So … You can just tell him I’m not doing another damn thing for him or his case until I know what he’s doing for my son.
Jeremy Yerton: OK
Diana: I told you guys the first day I walked in your office, that if I didn’t feel like I was being helped, I would just as soon take all the tapes go to the media shout it from the rooftops … so you know … I’m just being backed in a corner. So If he doesn’t want to tell us something, then fine, I’ll get my son onto the rehab facility and then I’ll just handle it my way.
Jeremy: OK if that’s what you want to do
Diana: Well I’m interested to find out …
Jeremy: You have a totally unrealistic expectation of time frames here, and I understand you want everything done quickly, right now, but that’s just not the way it works. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s a slow process … it’s a process … and it is what it is.
You want him out of jail and in rehab, and that’s where he’s headed … so he’s gotta be doing better there than sitting in that jail.
I understand what you’re saying, but once you started with us, the process and legally, the way we have to operate … takes a long time.
Diana: It was you and we weren’t even working together a week and you got impatient because things weren’t moving fast enough. So you know what it’s like to get impatient.
Jeremy: I certainly do.
Diana: And I have been doing this since April.
Jeremy: Well, I didn’t know about it until the … of August,
Diana: No, you guys knew about it in September … end of … All I’m asking for … I’m not asking for much. All I’m asking for is instead of the attorney general doing me like Janice Steidley did … I don’t want to hear ‘well yeah I’m going to help ya, I’m going to help ya.’ But not tell me what the help is? Do you understand the comparison here?
Jeremy: I understand
Diana: So all I want from him is for him to tell you: ‘Jeremy, just tell her let the kid get thru rehab and get the help he needs and then I’m gonna’ … You know, give me something!
Jeremy: And I can’t, because he won’t give it to me. I don’t know why he won’t give it to me. All he can is say is he can’t help, but that’s where we’re at …”
As the investigation continued, Thurman said, she began feeling like a pawn.
She recorded additional conversations of her interactions with Larry Steidley for the OSBI, but those recordings belong to the bureau, and The Frontier has not reviewed them.
Gene Haynes, who represented Justin Thurman, proposed several treatment centers that agreed to take his client, but the district attorney’s office rejected several and court dates were repeatedly continued without reason.
“It did drag on, I have to say,” Haynes told The Frontier.
In a phone call she recorded with an OSBI agent, Diana Thurman put it more bluntly: “He was basically being held hostage in that jail as long as the Steidleys thought I was trying to screw Walton.”
Justin Thurman sat in the Rogers County jail from April until December 2014, when he finally entered an intensive alcoholism treatment program near the Texas panhandle. Through his attorney, he declined to be interviewed for this story.
Diana Thurman said she was told the attorney general’s office was reviewing what had happened between her, Walton and Larry Steidley. She called the agency several times, but never received any answers.
She continued to feel stonewalled and distrustful of the people in power, she said: Hadn’t they heard the tapes? What was going to be done?
In recordings she provided, she threatens numerous times to take the story to the media, including in a phone call placed to the governor’s office. It’s unclear who she spoke to there.
Diana: I’m constantly getting phone calls by press — from TV reporters … from writers. And of course, they’re trying to convince me that if I take all of it public, turn over the recordings that somebody will have to step up and do something. And I’m trying to not make a circus out of anyone’s life or my own.
Governor’s office employee: Mmm-hmmm
Diana: What has been done is illegal and it’s wrong!
Diana Thurman followed through on her promise to take her story to the media, reaching out to several reporters at various media outlets in 2014 about her recordings and how she was working with the OSBI as part of their investigation.
Around Dec. 3, 2014, Diana Thurman received a text message from someone who knew she was working with the OSBI: “Larry knows.”
Diana Thurman believes she and her jailed son were used as pawns to settle political grievances.
She worked with the OSBI until she learned agents had possibly outed her as an informant, telling Larry Steidley that Thurman recorded their conversations.
She gave up trusting anyone connected to the mess in Rogers County. Diana Thurman had been asked to stir up trouble, and now she feared for her own safety.
Trouble found them all, eventually: in grand jury investigations, lawsuits, lost elections, power struggles and heartache.
In one of their recorded conversations, Larry Steidley tells Diana Thurman: “This is a regular three-ring circus with one honest person that’s not afraid in the middle which’d be Janice, just taking a beating from all sides.”
Before running for a second term in 2014, Janice Steidley changed her party affiliation to Republican. When the votes for the Republican primary were counted in June 2014, voters in large numbers opted for a change of leadership, choosing former city attorney Matt Ballard.
Steidley came in third, netting about 1,200 votes to Ballard’s nearly 6,000.
After learning of Diana Thurman’s allegations in early 2015, Ballard agreed to allow her son’s case to be transferred out of District 12 to Tulsa County drug court, to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.
Justin Thurman completed rehab, works full time and remains under the supervision of Tulsa County Drug Court.
A request by the state’s multi-county grand jury in 2014 for Rogers County elected officials to elevate their behavior above petty political squabbles and “demonstrate statesmanship” hasn’t stopped any of the parties involved from declaring war on one another: personally, professionally and in legal filings.
Not long after a judge threw out the initial grand jury petition in 2013, Janice Steidley and two other plaintiffs filed a defamation lawsuit against those who initiated and circulated the petition, alleging the entire process was part of an “unprecedented” plot to smear their names and destroy their lives.
That lawsuit remains pending.
Earlier this year, Rogers County officials settled Claremore detective John Singer’s lawsuit.
A defamation lawsuit filed by Janice Steidley in 2014 against several people involved in the petition process for the grand jury investigation accuses them of “torturous conduct” in an effort to “ruin (Steidley) politically.”
Janice Steidley recently filed another libel lawsuit against the Claremore Daily Progress, the local newspaper that documented many of the battles between her and law enforcement officers. The suit names Salesha Wilken, a reporter who wrote many of the stories, and alleges she and others were part of a conspiracy and “smear campaign” aimed at “ousting Janice Steidley from office.”
Through her attorney, Wilken declined to be interviewed for this story.
One of the hurdles Janice Steidley may face in those lawsuits is the Oklahoma Citizens’ Participation Act, a statute signed into law in 2014 by Gov. Mary Fallin, ensuring citizens certain protections to exercise their constitutional right of free speech.
Such laws are often called anti-SLAPP statutes, for the idea that they protect citizens against “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” where plaintiffs can seek to punish someone for publicly expressing facts or opinions they might not like, by subjecting them to costly, strategic lawsuits.
On Dec. 1, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office announced its intention to intervene in Steidley’s lawsuit, through its obligation to defend the constitutionality of the Oklahoma Citizens’ Participation Act.
On her way out of office in 2014, Steidley handed out steep pay raises to longtime employees, including an $18,000 raise to one assistant district attorney and an $8,000 bump to Misty Douglas. Many of Steidley’s employees left or were not kept by Ballard when he took office.
Douglas now works at the Steidley law firm and didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Several former employees and associates of the Steidleys have contacted The Frontier over the past months, requesting reporters investigate the actions of Detective John Singer and alleging that District Attorney Matt Ballard is also part of a “conspiracy” against the Steidleys.
Ballard told the Frontier any “paranoid accusations” of a conspiracy are “blatantly false.”
“Settling the Singer case was an effort on my team’s part to get things in the District Attorney’s Office back on track and restore fiscal responsibility in this office. Janice Steidley burned through more than $184,000 in attorney fees during 2013 and 2014; paid out of DA office funds,” he said.
After numerous interview requests from The Frontier, attorney Gary Richardson offered an interview at his Tulsa law office with his clients.
Richardson is a local attorney with national bonafides, a high-wattage smile and a famous $58 million jury verdict in a Texas defamation lawsuit from the 1980s.
When The Frontier sat down to interview the Steidleys a few days before Christmas, however, only Larry Steidley was present with Gary Richardson.
“That was my fault, sorry,” Richardson said. “I didn’t realize you wanted to talk to Janice.”
But The Frontier began in early November requesting an interview with Larry Steidley and his wife, whom he represents in several lawsuits.
After the interview at Richardson’s law office, Larry Steidley sent a follow-up email declining comment from his wife: “Being the holidays, Janice just doesn’t want to talk about the whole mess at this time.”
Larry Steidley is a baby-faced oak tree of a man who’s not afraid of a little hyperbole. His cell phone is covered in hunting camouflage and he points dramatically at people while talking.
His version of the Diana Thurman story varies sharply from her account.
According to Larry, Diana Thurman had a separate “endeavor” going to investigate and potentially embarrass Scott Walton, and they simply talked about their individual plans because they had “similar goals.” He might have given her “friendly advice,” but he was in no way the mastermind, he said.
He was conducting an investigation because his wife was “under attack.”
Larry Steidley questioned the criticisms contained in the grand jury report and the entire investigation.
“From my point of view, there is little doubt the AG’s office penned the interim report and final report for the 14th multi-county grand jury,” Steidley said. “It is my personal belief the reports crossed the line, and in my estimation were written the way they were to suit (Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s) political motivations.”
How does an investigation about a police officer accused of lying turn into an investigation of the District Attorney instead, he asks? The entire focus shifted to “getting the eye off their brethren.”
“I never in my wildest dreams imagined corruption in law enforcement could run so deep,” Larry Steidley said.
He admits meeting with Diana Thurman; though he said Janice has never met her or spoken to her.
“(Janice) never met that woman, never spoke with her on the phone. That’s totally false to my knowledge,” Larry Steidley said. “That never happened, unless I’m just not remembering it correctly.”
Diana Thurman disputes this, and provided vivid, consistent accounts of meeting Janice Steidley on at least two occasions.
“I still stand by everything I said, I know everything that happened,” she said. “How would I have pulled that out of the air? Because … all these details I have, I don’t go to Rogers County. I couldn’t even tell you the last time I had been to Claremore, until my son got into trouble.”
Larry Steidley doesn’t dispute the recordings Thurman made of his conversations with her, only the context.
“It wouldn’t matter to me if she had taped every conversation we ever had,” Larry Steidley said. “She’s a very colorful person. I admire her for trying to help her son…Obviously, she went a long way in this endeavor of hers and somewhere along the line, she discussed this apparently with Walton and the OSBI … I don’t know. But, if something had happened as she says, she’d have it on recording. But she doesn’t, cause it never happened.”
Larry Steidley said he was conducting his own investigation of Scott Walton, as a husband and an attorney representing his wife in several lawsuits.
While Janice Steidley is not heard on the recordings, she was “of course” aware of what he was doing, Larry Steidley said.
“If a sitting DA thinks there’s something wrong with the sheriff, there’s nothing wrong with bargaining or making deals as part of an investigation,” he said.
District attorneys use “confidential informants and plants and snitches all the time, every day,” he said.
At some point in 2014, Larry Steidley said, he lost track of what Thurman was doing and told her he could no longer work with her on any plans with regard to Walton, because he was representing a county commissioner who was suing the sheriff.
“In looking back on things, it appears Ms. Thurman was intent on trying to get everybody caught up in her situation.”
Diana Thurman operated on her own, Larry Steidley said, he did not direct her to flirt or entrap Scott Walton. And he never offered her anything with respect to her son, he said.
“It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen like that… but even if it did happen, it’s not illegal,” Larry Steidley told The Frontier.
He’s aware the OSBI investigated allegations of bribery and maintains the fact he and Janice were never charged proves that no crime was committed.
“Obviously, if they had anything to harpoon on her, they would have done it.”
But at the very least, isn’t there something fishy about the husband of the district attorney launching his own “investigation,” plotting or discussing mutual “plans” regarding the sheriff, sending crews to watch him and driving around the country at night, looking for him — for whatever the purpose may be?
Larry Steidley leans across his attorney’s massive conference room table and answers, without hesitation: “I hope that your husband would do that for you.”