Monday, January 16, 2017

Did House Leadership Step On a Land Mine?

Will it Explode or Will it be Disarmed?

You'd have to be dead or from Beaver County not to have heard about the investigation of Representatives Kirby and Fourkiller concerning misbehaving with the females down at the Capitol.   New Speaker Charles McCall charged the Rules Committee to investigate sexual harassment claims, wrongful termination claims, and a settlement agreement made by outgoing Speaker Hickman.

Fourkiller was blindsided by the charges which allegedly center on a female page reporting that she "felt uncomfortable" about something Fourkiller had said or done, a very weak premises to announce a public investigation upon.    House Leadership claims that a formal sexual harassment claim was made to the House Human Resources Department in April of 2015.  Once the charges had been filed in 2015 Fourkiller said he was informed of the charges and apologized if he had inadvertently made the girl uncomfortable.  The incident appeared to have ended there with no payment made to the girl.

So a committee comprised of select Rules Committee met on Wednesday to adopt rules for the investigation and scheduled the meetings after announcing that the investigation will be done in secrecy.  At that point all hell broke loose.

First some background.   The House paid Kirby's former Executive Assistant Hollie Anne Bishop and her attorney $44,500.00 after  Bishop started legal action against the House claiming sexual harassment and wrongful termination.  Then Speaker Jeff Hickman claimed there was no sexual harassment but paid the settlement, claiming it was cheaper to settle than fight.  Hickman also authorized paying an outside attorney to represent the House in the matter despite having a dozen qualified lawyers on staff.

When the payments came to light Rep. Kirby resigned, then rescinded his resignation a few days later, which sources alleged was due to a drinking binge, although it was unclear if the resignation was made under the influence of alcohol or if it was the rescinding of the resignation made under the alleged conditions.   Cockcroft appears to be in a rush to settle things, which he calls a "distraction"

When Rep Cockcroft, the Chairman of the special investigating committee, announced the investigation had widened to include Rep. Fourkiller that set a lot of tongues wagging.  Below was Cockcroft's statement on the matter:

 "The Special Investigation Committee has been charged with not only investigating the settlement agreement, but – upon request by House Speaker Charles McCall and Minority Leader Scott Inman in his December 23 letter to the Speaker – the Committee has also been charged with investigating any and all formal complaints filed against current House members. There have been formal complaints filed against two current lawmakers: Rep. Dan Kirby, a Republican from Tulsa, and Rep. Will Fourkiller, a Democrat from Stilwell. These complaints will be thoroughly and fairly investigated by the Committee, and the results of those investigations will be made public.

The Committee will meet on Wednesday, January 11 to adopt the special rules that will guide the Committee's process and to schedule our next actions. In an effort to protect personal information of alleged victims and unelected witnesses, the Committee will conduct its investigation in private; however, the shared goal of all members of this investigation is to present our findings quickly and publicly so that Oklahomans can have confidence that the House of Representatives is a safe, indiscriminate place for employees to work."

There are several problems with this, and all are intertwined.

  •  First, why did the investigation expand into a case nearly two years old?   One that had had no action other than the apology for any inadvertent uncomfortable actions by Fourkiller? 
  • Second, despite the fact that House Minority Leader Scott Inman had asked about former Rep. Randy Grau's involvement in the Kirby/Bishop scandal in his open letter to House Leadership, why was former Rep. Randy Grau not included in the investigation, an obviously intentional act given that the statement says "any and all formal complaints filed against current" members will be investigated. Why are past House members exempted and why are any charges or allegations that have yet to be formally filed exempted.
  • Third, given that Chairman Josh Cockcroft is one of former Rep. Randy Grau's best friends why was Cockcroft chosen to lead this effort?  Cockcroft, Grau, and Elise hall formed a little clique called "The Lunch Bunch" at the Capitol and while three votes sounds like a small number it is huge when you consider that most Speaker races are won or lost by less than three votes.
  • Fourth, why did House Minority Leader Scott Inman drop off the face of the map after his very public and very aggressive press conference on December 23rd?

At the Wednesday meeting Democrat Rep. David Perryman refused to sign a confidentiality contract that House Leadership demanded in order to be a part of the committee.  Upon his refusal to sign the agreement Perryman was forced to leave the room.  Perryman said that signing was unethical and that it would undermine his independence as a legislator.  House Leadership ordered that the investigation occur behind closed doors and that everything that happens at the meeting will be treated as confidential during the investigation but that some of the confidentiality rules will be lifted after the final report.

Perryman was willing to keep the sexual harassment claims confidential if required by state and federal law but the discussions of House Leadership's payment hidden in the bookkeeping under Housecleaning and Supplies should be made public.

We have yet to see a full roster of the committee but Perryman, Meloyde Blancett, and Steve Kouplen were to represent the Democrats, with the later two not making the Wednesday meeting due to the short notice given.  Rep Terry O'Donnell and Cockcroft are two of the Republican members.

 After Perryman made a fuss the initial meeting to set the rules was opened to the press and public, albeit after telling everyone that the meeting was private so many didn't attend as they weren't allowed to attend.  Once the rules were voted on and adopted Cockcroft ordered the others out of the room if they had not signed the confidentiality agreement.  House Minority Leader Scott Inman was not present and has not commented to the media despite many attempts by the media.

Meanwhile Speaker Charles McCall has hired outside counsel despite the dozen qualified and well paid attorneys on House Staff.  The attorney that had handled the initial Kirby/Bishop complaint turned out to be the wife of former House Staff head Chad Worthington, bringing up allegations of cronyism and tainting of the process after picking someone intimately tied into House Leadership.  The hiring of Worthington to handle the EEOC complaint of wrongful termination added another $23,651.38 to the $44,500.00 settlement to Bishop.  An additional $10,000.00 will be paid to another outside attorney, bringing the total to over $78,000.00 so far.
We said that questions were raised after all of this and the next article will shed light on all:
  1. First, why did the investigation expand into the Fourkiller case that is nearly two years old?
  2. Why was former Rep. Randy Grau not included in the investigation?
  3. Why are past House members exempted?
  4. Why are any charges or allegations that have yet to be formally filed exempted?
  5. Chairman Josh Cockcroft is one of former Rep. Randy Grau's best friends why was Cockcroft chosen to lead this effort?
  6. Fourth, why did House Minority Leader Scott Inman drop off the face of the map after his very public and very aggressive press conference on December 23rd?
Another huge point is the legality of demanding confidentiality agreements and forcing legislators to sign the contracts or be excluded from the investigation.  That will also be addressed in another story in this issue.