Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado says he’s not out to make the media’s life difficult.
Regalado spoke with The Frontier on Tuesday regarding his decision to pull media members’ courthouse identification badges. The badges essentially allow those who have them to bypass security at the entrances to the Tulsa County Courthouse, 500 S. Denver Ave.
“We don’t want to impede your guys’ jobs by having to wait in line when you have a proper media pass,” Regalado said.
The sheriff’s statement came as news to media members, many of whom were under the impression that only the media’s courthouse ID passes were being pulled.
Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Casey Roebuck sent an email to local media Friday afternoon advising them that their “ID badges can no longer be used to bypass security checkpoints at the courthouse.”
Monday morning, courthouse guards began confiscating media members’ ID passes. The guards told reporters from The Frontier and another media organization that they had been instructed to take media members’ ID passes. Asked whether they were confiscating only media members’ IDs, the guards said yes.
The Frontier emailed Roebuck later that day to ask what prompted the decision to pull the media passes and whether the badges were being pulled temporarily or for good.
The change in policy is permanent, she said, then explained why the change was made.
“This practice was in place long before the new administration” of Sheriff Regalado, Roebuck’s email states. “We decided to take a closer look at it. After much discussion among the command staff, it was decided that the practice of allowing media members to totally bypass the checkpoints is a potential security risk.”
But Regalado said Tuesday that the Sheriff’s Office is reviewing all county-issued ID passes and that media members might well get their passes back someday.
“This is not, ‘We are ending it forever,’” Regalado said. “This is, ‘Let us account for them, make sure we know who has them,’ and then we can issue those back out, and that way we have a working, live list where we can account for all of them.”
Regalado stressed that the media were not being singled out and that he does not want to keep them from doing their work.
“Especially during high-profile cases where that will become an issue,” Regalado said. “We don’t want to impede your guys’ jobs by having to wait in line when you have a proper media pass.”
An open records request filed by The Frontier under the state’s Open Records Act found that Tulsa County has issued 1,599 badges to county employees; 105 to members of the bar association; 64 to vendors; and 43 to media members.
The 64 vendors who have received security passes include electricians; elevator repairmen; uniform providers; Washington, Okmulgee and Osage county officials; construction company employees; the owner of a public relations firm; and an official from the Indian Nations Council of Governments.
The problem, Regalado said, is that the ID passes have historically been issued by the county Building Operations department without the involvement of the Sheriff’s Office. So the Sheriff’s Office has no idea who has a badge and whether those people still qualify for them or need them.
“Who is to say that a reporter has one, for example, (or) that a reporter had one, and he or she retires and still has this all-access pass out there — that is a problem,” Regalado said.
That kind of scenario could play out for any person issued a county ID badge, Regalado said, and that is why all passes will be reviewed.
Does this mean all 1,811 ID passes will be confiscated until such time as the users’ identities and purposes for entering the building can be verified? No.
The Sheriff’s Office insists that all ID badges will be reviewed, but Roebuck said the vast majority of people who have badges will be able to keep them — and thus bypass security — until the review process is completed.
“Traditionally officers of the court have been afforded the badges and of course people who work in the building because they need access to their own place of employment,” she said. “So they have been afforded the luxury of side-stepping security, but we are taking a look at everyone who has these badges (and) deciding whether or not they need them.”
County Clerk Michael Willis said county employees’ ID badges provide different levels of access to the courthouse depending on the person’s job. Most county employees are subjected to at least a cursory background check before being hired, Willis said, and no employee is issued an identification badge without the approval of an elected official or division director.
Willis, who served as the county’s public information officer for nearly a decade, said he did not do background checks on media members who requested courthouse ID passes.
“My criteria was, they had to be a real member of the media with media credentials (from a) recognized news outlet, and if they showed me a copy of their media credentials, then I would fill out their form and take them down to get their photo made,” Willis said. “So there was no quote, unquote, background check, but we were going off of the fact that they were actual members of the media.”