CLAREMORE (AP) — Salesha Wilken was just looking for a better understanding of Rogers County’s finances when she sifted through 1,000 pages of records used in a state audit of the county. She found much more.
For the past 18 months, the reporter at the Claremore Daily Progress has detailed the auditors’ findings and chronicled a nasty, yearslong feud among local law enforcement agencies and the district attorney. The newspaper is now targeted in a defamation lawsuit filed by the prosecutor and two assistants.
“You can’t make this stuff up if you tried,” Wilken said. “This thing has tentacles like crazy.”
The back-and-forth among county leaders and the newspaper has roiled this town best known as the birthplace of humorist Will Rogers, who once said, “Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.” Residents now routinely pack county commission meetings, peppering officials with questions about how their county is run.
State auditors raised questions last year about spending within county government, but they offered few specifics. Based on Wilken’s reporting, the newspaper raised allegations that two county commissioners engaged in bid splitting involving equipment and materials from vendors, then accepted gifts and dinners from those companies months later. In one case, an Arkansas road-striping company rewarded with $100,000 in work in 2009 subsequently provided door prizes for the county’s Christmas party.
The newspaper also reported allegations that Rogers County District Attorney Janice Steidley conspired with an assistant to manufacture bogus allegations of perjury against a Claremore police officer who had publicly criticized the office for poor performance and corruption.
No criminal charges have been filed. But the articles led Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt in October to call for a grand jury investigation into potential wrongdoing by public officials, saying the integrity of the legal system must be protected. That grand jury is still investigating the case.
Pruitt stepped in after townspeople themselves — including the sheriff and police officers — had petitioned the local court to empanel a grand jury. A legal technicality led a judge to throw out the signatures of 7,000 people who had signed a petition. The petition’s backers needed 4,480 signatures — 16 percent of the number of voters from the last governor’s election.
The petition’s three targets — the district attorney and Commissioners Mike Helm and Kirt Thacker — have denied the allegations and said attacks against them are politically motivated.
“People can say whatever they want,” Helm said. “Just by saying it, it doesn’t make it true.”
Thacker said the Progress has written unflattering things about him because he won’t “submit to their bullying.”
Steidley did not return a phone message seeking comment but has called the allegations against her “baseless and pathetic.”
The newspaper has spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal bills.
“We were never looking to uncover massive amounts of stuff; all we were looking to do was understand an audit that had already been done,” said Bailey Dabney, publisher of the Progress. “We take the watchdog role pretty darned seriously.”