Creek woes led Roberts into politics
BY ZIVA BRANSTETTER World Projects Editor
Thursday, October 11, 2007
10/11/07 at 11:20 AM
Document: Read the lawsuit filed against Oral Roberts University
Video: Reaction to the ORU lawsuit.
ORU calm pledged
Richard Roberts was up a creek
when he decided to get involved in
Fred Creek to be exact.
The creek, which flows through
south Tulsa and the property of
Oral Roberts University, was eroding large chunks of land in its path
and overflowing its banks. In May
2000, flooding there caused $5 million in damage to ORU's Learning
As ORU's president, Roberts
said he had always had an interest
in local and national politics but
not an active involvement. Now he
had a reason.
"I remember when I could jump
over Fred Creek as a boy," Roberts said Wednesday in an interview with the Tulsa World. "Fred
Creek had become Fred River. . . .
I said, 'We've got to fix Fred.' "
The river led Roberts into an activist role in local politics, which
underlies the core allegations in a
lawsuit that has embroiled Roberts and ORU in controversy for
Roberts says he's asserting his
right as a citizen.
Detractors say he has endangered ORU's tax-exempt status by
involving it in partisan politics.
When he faced the Fred Creek
problem, Roberts first turned to
then-Mayor Susan Savage and
asked what the city could do. Not
much, as it turned out.
"The discussion we had was
there really is no legal way for the
city to do public improvements on
private property with public dollars," Savage said, recalling the
Savage, now Oklahoma's secretary of state, said: "We talked
about public-private partnerships,
especially upstream, but I knew
that was not satisfactory. But it
From there, Roberts would go
on to become part of newly elected
Mayor Bill LaFortune's transition
team in 2002. LaFortune met with
Roberts during the campaign and
promised the city would begin "a
new relationship" with ORU.
Roberts was reportedly angry
when the city left Fred Creek repairs off of the Vision 2025 list
of projects. That package of
improvements was approved
by voters in 2003.
"Fred Creek was the last
project dropped from the slate
of 2025 projects," said Chris
Medlock, a city councilor at
the time. "We went out to
promise Richard, who was
very upset, that we would do
everything we could to get it
on the ballot in the future."
Though the Fred Creek repair was a few years away, LaFortune did make sure the
city fixed another issue for
Roberts and ORU in 2003. The
city ordered installation of two
traffic lights in key areas near
the campus without the usual
Roberts said the lights
along South Lewis and 81st
Street were in locations where
students and other drivers had
been involved in accidents.
"I'm not interested in being
a power player. I'm interested
in the safety of my students,"
he said. "I want to be involved
in my city. I care about our
In 2004, Roberts joined Republican leaders, business
people and religious leaders in
a news conference at the Mabee Center. Praising LaFortune, Roberts called for an end
to squabbling among city
councilors, including Medlock, a future mayoral candidate.
Roberts said then he was
concerned the acrimony could
harm city issues, including an
upcoming vote on a general
obligation bond issue. That
measure -- which passed --
included $15 million in improvements to Fred Creek.
In 2005, LaFortune appointed Roberts' sister-in-law, Realtor Stephanie Cantees, to the
Metropolitan Area Planning
But near the end of that
year, the mayor had fallen
from favor with Roberts, who
urged him not to seek re-election.
LaFortune said he could not
comment because the law firm
where he works is defending
ORU in a lawsuit brought by
three former professors. That
suit claims, among other
things, that Roberts ordered
government professor Tim
Brooker to use his students in
the mayoral campaign of Randi Miller.
Miller, a county commissioner, was running against
LaFortune in the GOP primary.
On Jan. 12, 2006, Miller held
a news conference at the Hilton Tulsa Southern Hills
across the street from ORU.
Miller stood next to Roberts.
Roberts made it clear then
that he was speaking as a private citizen and not on behalf
of ORU. IRS rules prohibit
churches and other nonprofits
from campaigning for and endorsing candidates in certain
"I thought she'd make a
good mayor, and I thought we
were at a season of change in
the city," he said of his decision to endorse Miller.
Roberts said he did not tell
Brooker to have his students
work in the Miller campaign.
He said Brooker's students
worked in local campaigns, including for Miller, Mayor
Kathy Taylor and Medlock.
"We want our students to
get field experience, This is
not anything new," Roberts
Medlock said he had asked
Brooker whether his students
could work in his campaign
and was turned down. Medlock said individual ORU students have worked in his campaign, but not in large numbers.
"He (Brooker) said, 'We
don't do local elections,' and
when we found out they were
backing Randi, it felt a little
disingenuous at the time."
Roberts said he takes to
heart a Bible Scripture that
commands God's followers to
care for areas and people near
"You can't just say, 'I'm going to minister in Africa, or
Asia or Europe.' "
At the same time, Roberts
said he adheres closely to IRS
regulations about his involvement in campaigns.
"I know that a university
cannot endorse a candidate,
but I have a right to be a private citizen."
Ziva Branstetter 581-8378
World Staff Writer Curtis Killman
contributed to this report.
Medlock: The former city councilor asked for ORU
students to work in his campaign and was turned down
because “we don’t do local elections.” He said it seemed
“disingenuous” when he found out students were used in
Randi Miller’s campaign.
to Fred Creek
in a 2005