A tort claim released to the media last week by attorneys for former Tulsa County Sheriff’s Maj. Shannon Clark kind of said what we already knew in a big picture way.
But it still provides important missing pieces of how the agency tried to cover up a 2009 investigation into Reserve Deputy Robert Bates, even after he shot and killed an unarmed man during an undercover operation. (If you’ve been under a rock, Bates is a wealthy friend of indicted Sheriff Stanley Glanz and Glanz was indicted for withholding the report and taking mileage reimbursements while driving a county car.)
A tort claim is a required prelude to suing a governmental agency, in this case the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office. Keep in mind that anyone can say anything in a tort claim, but Clark is a 23-year law enforcement veteran and his record brings credibility.
The story Clark tells tracks with the chain of events we know well at The Frontier. We were the first media outlet to publicly question Glanz about a prior internal affairs investigation into Bates’ training. During a press conference on April 20, Glanz said the investigation cleared Bates and the department. (It didn’t.)
Clark’s tort claim says rumors about the Bates report first surfaced internally on April 13 and then on April 14, Capt. Billey McKelvey “provided” a copy of it to then-Undersheriff Tim Albin.
Clark’s claim alleges he was shoved out of the Sheriff’s Office, where he’d worked for 15 years, after the Bates report surfaced because Glanz thought he leaked it. Glanz apparently thought Clark and McKelvey were part of “a conspiracy to overthrow him as Tulsa County Sheriff and cause him to resign by releasing the 2009 report to the media.”
So to review: Apparently someone within the Sheriff’s Office had tried to delete this very important report but someone else had saved a copy, possibly for years. I wonder what else has been hidden away at TCSO? (Doesn’t all the talk of subterfuge and overthrow plots sound kind of like Game of Thrones?)
Clark and McKelvey met with Glanz the next day and “urged Glanz to make a public statement acknowledging the existence of the 2009 Report and offering condolences to the family of Eric Harris,” his claim states.
“Glanz disregarded their suggestions and stated that he was scheduled to emcee a Boy Scout event at the Mayo Hotel later that day and immediately thereafter was leaving for vacation with his wife.”
(I do think previously scheduled family vacations could rank as a priority over leveling with the public but possibly not emceeing charity events.)
Clark told the sheriff he was previously told to deny existence of the Bates report “since there was no documented record of its existence within TCSO because it was not an official TCSO Internal Affairs investigation.”
“Glanz instructed Mr. Clark to continue to deny the existence of the 2009 report to the media,” the tort claim states.
This is where the sheriff’s prior words may create difficulty for him in court. As we all know, he’s been charged with two misdemeanors, including refusal to perform official duty by refusing to release the Bates report.
At the time, Glanz claimed the report was not an internal affairs report but now his attorney, Scott Wood, is trying to get that charge thrown out, saying it is an internal affairs report and exempt from the Open Records Act.
In court filings, prosecutors have pointed out that the report is about far more than Bates’ performance, or lack thereof. It’s about TCSO officials at the highest level showing favoritism to a wealthy friend and ordering subordinates to falsify his records.
Advice to future sheriffs: You can’t just change what you call a public record and withhold it from the public. It’s the content that matters.
After The Frontier obtained the 2009 Bates report late on April 23, we worked through the night to break the story about what the report said. (We didn’t have a functioning website at the time so we posted it on an open platform.)
If Glanz concocted a reason to fire Clark because the embattled sheriff thought his public information officer leaked the report, he was wrong. I can’t speak for other reporters, but Clark wasn’t our source.
Clark also alleges that Acting Sheriff Michelle Robinette conducted a “limited and biased sham investigation” to find a reason to fire him, at Glanz’s direction.
TCSO says it can’t respond to Clark’s tort claim because it is a legal matter.
One way that TCSO could speak on its own behalf, however, is to follow the law: The Open Records Act requires public agencies to release records relating to an employee’s firing. But TCSO errs on the side of withholding rather than releasing documents, so it created a letter to Clark that states he was terminated for unspecified reasons discussed in a meeting.
To show you what I’m talking about, here are a few emails from TCSO General Counsel Meredith Baker to The Frontier after we asked for records on Clark’s termination.
This is one of many ongoing battles since April we’ve had with the Sheriff’s Office for records that are public and should be quickly released. Instead, we and other media outlets have had to wait months as the records trickle out under pressure.
Sometimes, as we’ve seen, we’ve been told the records never existed in the first place only to have them surface later.
You’d think watching the former sheriff get indicted for withholding records would have an impact on the willingness of those still there to behave in a transparent way. Here’s hoping that Robinette and the newly elected sheriff will truly commit themselves and the office to abiding by letter and the spirit of the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
After all, these are not their records, they’re the people’s records.