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State-and-regional
Veterans Affairs hired nurse who wrote fake prescription

OKLAHOMA CITY — On July 21, 2017, Casey Branscum drove his truck to a Walgreens drive-thru in Oklahoma City and handed the pharmacy employee a prescription for 120 tablets of Percocet.

The employee, noticing the prescription was the wrong color, called the doctor whose name was on it and found it was a forgery, according to an officer at the scene. Branscum, 29, was arrested in the Walgreens drive-thru lane and soon charged with attempting to obtain a controlled dangerous substance by fraud, a felony he would later plead guilty to.

At the time, Branscum worked as a nurse at an Oklahoma City nursing home and could reasonably expect his career would be harmed by the incident. But within two months of his arrest, Branscum had another job in Oklahoma City. It, too, involved nursing homes.

Word arrived in the email inbox of Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs employees on Sept. 18, 2017.

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Local
Which parts of Oklahoma have the highest and lowest voter turnout rates? We analyzed the numbers to find out

In far northwestern Oklahoma, Harper County may be one of the sparsest populated areas of the state, but, boy, do its residents take election matters seriously.

When the smoke cleared on the June 26 primary election, a Tulsa World analysis of statewide voter participation rates found that nearly 61 percent of Harper County registered voters cast ballots.

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the state, near the Texas and Arkansas borders, voters in McCurtain County are seemingly off the state political grid. In an area where residents are known to get their TV news out of Shreveport, Louisiana, rather than Oklahoma City, it may come as no surprise that only about 29 percent of registered voters went to the polls on June 26.

County officials and an expert who studies these types of issues said the wide range in voter turnout across the state is attributed to a combination of issues that can be traced to what other issues were on the ballot and demographic voting trends.

Statewide, about 43 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the June 26 primary election, the World analysis shows.

Many attributed the relatively high voter turnout on a primary ballot to interest in State Question 788, which would legalize medical marijuana usage, as well as a full ballot of candidates in the gubernatorial and other state-level races.

Tulsa and Oklahoma counties mirrored the state voter turnout, with about 45 percent of Tulsa County registered voters casting ballots compared to a 43 percent turnout in Oklahoma County.

But statewide, the voter turnout ranged from 61 percent in Harper County to 29 percent for a low in McCurtain County, the analysis shows.

Harper County officials say a ballot packed with hot topics helped drive the voters to the polls there.

In addition to SQ 788 and the gubernatorial race, Harper County voters also considered whether to approve liquor-by-the-drink, and there was a special election for the county sheriff position. Residents in the Harper County city of Laverne also could vote on whether to approve a sales tax measure, said Harper County Clerk Karen Hickman.

Voters approved the sales tax and liquor-by-the-drink questions but rejected SQ 788, Hickman said.

The sales tax question drew 60 percent of Laverne’s registered voters to the polls, the World’s analysis shows.

Voter interest in Harper County is not unique in the area. Voter turnout was generally higher in northwestern portions of the state, which typically have a greater percentage of Republican voters.

Nine of the 11 counties with voter turnouts greater than 50 percent of registered voters are located in the north and northwest portions of the state.

University of Oklahoma political science professor Keith Gaddie said turnout is typically greater in the north and northwestern areas of the state compared to those in the east and southeastern areas.

“That rural stretch of old Oklahoma Territory just has higher participation rates than the old Indian Territory did,” Gaddie said. “It’s a historical artifact of political culture.”

Indeed, the south and southeastern counties bordering Texas and Arkansas generally had lower voter turnouts in the primary election. Other southeastern counties with voter turnout in the low 30 percent range were Sequoyah, LeFlore, Choctaw and Bryan counties.

Gaddie said racial demographic voting trends also tend to play a part in the differences in turnout.

McCurtain County Election Board Secretary Kelly Donaldson said it seems residents there aren’t exposed to the same level of interest from state candidates due to the region’s remoteness.

“There aren’t a lot of candidates that travel down this far,” Donaldson said.

In Idabel, the McCurtain county seat, only 28 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the state primary election, the World analysis shows.

And while residents in Tulsa and Oklahoma City have been besieged with campaign ads on broadcast and cable television, Donaldson pointed out that most residents in Idabel get their local television news from a Shreveport affiliate.

Shreveport, Donaldson said, is about a two-hour drive away, while a drive to Oklahoma City can be double that.

Looking at the turnout by party, Republicans outpaced Democrats in overall voter participation, with 49.7 percent of registered GOP voters casting ballots compared to 45.1 percent of registered Democrats.

“Republican turnout rates are higher in part because they have a lot more going on in terms of competition and opportunities to nominate,” Gaddie said.

Despite being permitted to vote in Democratic Party elections in the state, only about 26 percent of registered independents statewide cast primary ballots, while about half of the approximately 6,400 Libertarians voted on primary election day.

Among individual counties, Harper County had the highest turnout among GOP voters, with about two-thirds of registered Republicans casting ballots.

Roger Mills County had the highest Democratic turnout among counties, with 60 percent of registered Democrats there casting ballots.

About 44 percent of city of Tulsa voters cast a ballot in the June primary, compared to about 42 percent of Oklahoma City registered voters.


News
On the night shift: Workers push to finish Gathering Place construction in still of evening

The sun is setting on construction at the Gathering Place.

Under the resultant glow of the moon, workers are busy putting the finishing sparkle on the $465 million riverfront park, which is scheduled to open to the public Sept. 8.

“We’re going to start transitioning basically where the bulk of the work is going to have to happen in the evenings,” said Jeff Machado, senior superintendent for Crossland Construction, general contractor for the park.

That means the number of night workers — who typically will pull 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. shifts — will move from about 50 to between 100 and 200, Machado said.

The increase is to accommodate the influx of folks being brought in during soft openings. By the time the park opens, officials estimate between 50,000 to 60,000 people will have received invitation-only tours of Gathering Place, said Jeff Stava, executive director and trustee of Tulsa’s Gathering Place LLC.

That demographic includes such groups as nonprofit organizations, donors, city employees, kids’ groups, park construction workers, home-schoolers and public school students who were unable to visit during a brief window opened to them from January to March, Stava said.

“(Park Director) Tony (Moore) came from the amusement park world. He knows parks,” Stava said. “This is kind of the releasing-the-valve strategy that he developed where we have people coming through the park — investors, people who are donors, community groups — to come experience it. It also helps alleviate the need for people to come the first week or the first month.”

The second part of the crowd-mitigation strategy is the First 100 Days, a reference to the regular featured entertainment and activities that will be held from Sept. 8 through the end of 2018.

“We don’t want everyone to feel like they have to come on the first day,” Stava said. “There’s going to be something really cool and fun those first 100 days, whether you are a kid or young at heart.”

Gathering Place took a pair of Tulsa World journalists on a tour of the 66.5-acre green space Thursday night.

Frogs chirped in the waters. Landscapers shoveled and positioned mulch into vegetation beds. Workers power-washed the two-tone-blue sports courts and installed brackets for lights on the surrounding poles.

The entire park is illuminated by LED lights, Stava said, giving it a tranquil ambiance in the evening

“They don’t put a lot of glare out,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like a stadium light that’s just pounding down on you or like a metal halide lights on a lot of the city lights, where it just comes out to the side on down. These are directional and push the light straight down.”

Multicolored lights splash upon the boulder-stacked walls of Four Seasons Garden and the canopy of ONEOK Boathouse, whose roof has 88 composite Fiberglass panels, each one a different shape, Stava said. The top of the facility rises about 60 feet from the level of the water, Machado said.

“It’s kind of a classy look and feel,” Stava said of the park’s illumination. “The night light makes the plantings and the beds and the features just kind of pop. The buildings especially, they have a lot of architectural lighting, interior and exterior. They are just gorgeous.”

Work on the Williams Lodge remains, along with security, lighting and electrical duties throughout the park. But Stava said officials are in the “very, very final push.”

Crossland has headed construction for Gathering Place since August 2015, when Manhattan Construction Co. was replaced after an apparent disagreement.

“It’s one of those jobs where you’re proud to bring your family to it,” Machado said. “My kids obviously love it. It’s the only job I’ve had where my kids beg me to go to work.”

Stava added: “When you’re dealing with something this complex and this large with a lot of different variables, as a construction management group, they’ve just done an exceptional job keeping it all together.”