How Oklahoma’s Top Prosecutors Gang Up Against Reform

    Conservative district attorneys often seem like they are at one-on-one political war with their progressive challengers. But according to a former DA candidate in Oklahoma, the state’s top prosecutors all coordinate with each other in an attempt to make sure that the “right” candidates take office.

    Last year, Cory Williams, a former state legislator, vied to become the next DA for Payne and Logan counties. His reform platform included downgrading more felony charges to misdemeanors, curbing cash bail, expanding diversion and drug treatment, and releasing data about racial disparities in the system.

    Incumbent DA Laura Austin Thomas was most displeased by his notion that anything needed to change, stating, “Criminal justice reform is a very fun and nice and popular political soundbite, but a lot of it’s empty, empty words. The district attorney’s office can’t continue to be the dumping ground for it.”

    Now that the race is over, with DA Austin Thomas taking 55.8 percent of the vote in November 2018, Williams has cried foul.

    He told Oklahoma Watch this month that he believes the 27-strong Oklahoma District Attorneys Association “has meetings with regards to political races,” and that “they have a coordinated effort between the [DA Council] and the association whenever it comes to get[ting] people elected and messaging.”

    The DA Council is a state government agency, whereas the DA Association is organized as a Section 501(c)(6) nonprofit. A state agency is not permitted to engage in political activities, whereas a 501(c)(6) nonprofit can spend unlimited amounts on political lobbying. The two organizations share the same business address, meet one after another in the same space, and even share an executive director: Trent Baggett, whose Twitter account has boasted, for example, of a store having to forfeit its “drug paraphernalia”  water pipes without any conviction.

    This would not be the first time Oklahoma’s DAs have manipulated or thwarted the will of the people.

    A DA association acting as a front for mass-incarceration lobbying is nothing new. But if Williams’ allegations are true, this would not be the first time Oklahoma’s DAs have manipulated or thwarted the will of the people.

    The 27 already showed the public what they stood for when in early 2017 they tried to make simple drug possession a felony againright after the state’s voters de-felonized drug possession via a November 2016 ballot initiative, Question 780.

    And at least one of their number, Oklahoma City DA David Prater, has shown that he’s happy to go further still when he feels like his carceral kingdom is under siege.

    Back in 2016, Muskogee police officers pulled Myanmarese Christian rock musician Eh Wah over for a broken taillight. It was a pretext to search for drugs that did not exist, and they interviewed him for hours. Despite the absence of drugs, thanks to Oklahoma’s expansive civil asset forfeiture law the police still went ahead and seized $53,000 that Eh Wah had raised to build orphanages and Christian schools back in Southeast Asia.

    Following media pressure, the Muskogee police handed back the cash. But former State Senator Kyle Loveless, a Republican, was furious. At a rally against civil asset forfeiture in Oklahoma City, he told a crowd, “If it can happen to an innocent missionary, it can happen to you.”

    Rather than react like a normal human being to this violation, DA Prater, an ardent supporter of civil asset forfeiture, embarked on a fishing expedition against Loveless.

    Prater lucked out: Loveless had a pending arrest warrant from a speeding ticket. Within a few months, Prater had enough dirt on Loveless for a campaign finance probe. Loveless ended up resigning and pleading guilty to an embezzlement count.

    While Oklahoma’s DAs can’t reasonably investigate and indict every single person who voted “Yes” on Question 780, they can definitely, through intimidation and coordinated action, make opposition to their agenda a risky proposition. After all, 27 heads are better than one.

    Image of district attorneys Laura Austin Thomas (left) and David Prater (right)

    • Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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