Did an Oklahoma district attorney abuse his power by trying to dig up dirt on a prominent criminal justice reform organization and its director?
That’s the question on the minds of many in the Sooner State, where Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater stands accused of launching an illegal criminal investigation into former state House Speaker Kris Steele and Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, a nonprofit he leads.
The accusations stem from a wrongful termination claim
by Prater’s former employee William Muller, a longtime law enforcement professional who served in the Secret Service and as a police officer before becoming an investigator in the district attorney’s office.
Muller said Prater ordered him in the fall of 2017 to obtain a grand jury subpoena from the state attorney general’s office so he could find “incriminating or compromising information” on Steele and his reform group, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union
“No other investigative agency was involved, there was no case file assigned to the investigation, no court filings, and it was not until later that Mr. Muller realized that the Oklahoma County District Attorney apparently did not have the lawfully required ‘probable cause’ to obtain grand jury subpoenas,” Muller’s Oct. 22 notice of claim says.
The notice — filed with the state’s Administrator of the Office of Public Affairs
as a precursor to a potential lawsuit — goes on to explain that, when Muller failed to find any wrongdoing by the reform groups, “Prater immediately became irrational and angry.”
“On or about January 29, 2019 … Prater lost control of himself and began to yell and curse uncontrollably,” the notice says. “Prater then order [sic] the search of Muller’s own bag, took his personal firearm, and kept demanding and cursing at Muller demanding where his other firearms were. … Muller was then escorted from the office in front of all of the personnel.”
According to Muller’s attorney, Robert Gifford, his client was never notified of the reason for termination. Though Muller seeks $125,000 in compensation, Gifford said his client is more than an unfairly fired employee.
“He’s a whistleblower,” Gifford said. “Because the grand jury is supposed to be secret, nobody would have ever known about these subpoenas. There’s no reporting requirement — it's a secret process.”
If no settlement is reached through the claim, Gifford added that he’s allowed to sue.
“I don’t want them to settle; I want to do some depositions,” he said.
Prater was not available for comment on the case when contacted last week. In statements to local newspapers, he denied any wrongdoing and called the allegations “ridiculous.”
“When I am lawfully able to discuss the reason Mr. Muller was terminated,” he told Tulsa World, “it will be very clear what is going on here.”
Kris Steele, who chairs the reform coalition at the heart of the inquiry, declined to comment on the allegations. His group led a successful campaign in 2016 to reclassify drug possession as a misdemeanor and convinced lawmakers in May to make those changes retroactive.
Many of the initiatives Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform has backed have faced staunch opposition from prosecutors in the state, and particularly Prater.
He publicly opposed reclassifying drug crimes on the grounds that lengthy prison sentences are often necessary negative incentives to convince users to enter treatment.
According to Muller’s notice, Prater was also privately disparaging about reform efforts.
“Mr. Prater, in his own words, felt that any reform to criminal justice was ‘bullshit,’ and expressed great anger toward any discussion with anything that mentioned ‘reform,’” the notice says.
Alex Gerszewski, a representative for Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, told Law360 his office received the information on Oct. 23 and is reviewing it.
--Editing by Aaron Pelc.
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