OKLAHOMA CITY — Members of the top brass at the Department of Public Safety who say they were forced out are pushing back.
Former Public Safety Commissioner Rusty Rhoades, former Deputy Commissioner and General Counsel Megan Simpson and former Chief of the Patrol Michael S. Harrell on Friday gave notice to the state they intended to sue for wrongful termination.
Each is seeking $175,000.
Rhoades and Simpson, a former assistant district attorney and associate district judge, on Friday discussed the case and what they believe are improper actions by Public Safety Cabinet Secretary Chip Keating and his deputy, Jason Nelson.
Rhoades and Simpson said they were both notified the afternoon of Sept. 2, Labor Day, by Nelson that they could resign, retire or be fired.
Rhoades said he had no choice but to retire, while Simpson was fired. Rhoades said Nelson told him the governor was going to say it was the result of “ineffective leadership.”
“I was surprised,” Rhoades said. “I had no previous inclination that was going to happen, with the governor, certainly.”
Rhoades said Harrell also opted to retire.
Rhoades said he is speaking up to clear his name after more than 30 years with the Department of Public Safety with no accusations of wrongdoing and holding several key posts with the agency.
Simpson said Nelson had no legal authority to fire her or seek Harrell’s retirement, saying that was in the purview of the commissioner.
The termination came after a former member of the patrol, Troy D. German, was charged with blackmail. Rhoades accused German of seeking a higher rank in exchange for not disclosing what German said was damaging information about promotional practices within the patrol.
The charge was later dropped. German retired in June at the rank of captain.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter’s office empaneled a multicounty grand jury that indicted German.
Rhoades said that despite some reports, he never requested the charge to be dropped but did agree to let it be done.
He said he felt “pressured” to agree to let the charge be dropped.
German later filed a federal lawsuit alleging malicious prosecution and naming Rhoades, Harrell and Simpson as defendants.
“We are not going to just lie down and let people destroy our good and hard-earned reputations on all these false allegations in that federal suit,” Rhoades said.
Rhoades also was asked about reports that Stitt’s office was not happy with the pace of implementation of Real ID, a federal project the state Legislature for years refused to participate in and fund. In 2017, the state switched gears and decided to participate.
“My thought is that is an easy out that is not true,” Rhoades said. “We were on track. DPS had met every benchmark it was supposed to have met.”
Simpson said unbeknownst to the agency, Keating contacted the vendor for Real ID saying “some crazy things — how everything was off the rails and why aren’t we on schedule.”
A representative for the Real ID vendor then called Simpson confused about Keating’s statements because the project was on schedule, Simpson said.
“Just prior, a couple of weeks, maybe, of us leaving, I had gotten very curt, direct emails from Secretary Keating removing everyone at DPS that was responsible for the Real ID project from under our leadership and command,” Rhoades said. “He and Jason Nelson were going to oversee it. These are people that had no idea about it, knew nothing about the history or what had been going on.”
Rhoades said Keating had no authority to order those changes.
In addition, Stitt’s office required DPS to put Nelson, a former Republican lawmaker who previously worked for Chip Keating’s father, former Gov. Frank Keating, on the DPS payroll at $99,000 a year, Rhoades said.
Stitt’s office referred questions about Nelson’s salary to the Department of Public Safety.
Rhoades said it became clear that Keating, who served from 2001 to 2004 as an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper, wanted to run the agency.
“It was very clear that his intent was to run the agency,” Rhoades said.
Keating sent an email to Rhoades, Simpson and members of Stitt’s staff, demanding to be briefed on or see the file concerning personnel actions relating to the German case, Simpson said.
“And from that point forward, he would oversee all the personnel actions related to that case,” Simpson said. “He would be in charge of those.”
Simpson said personnel actions in the agency were outside the purview of a Cabinet secretary.
In addition, Keating asked Rhoades to commission him as a peace officer, Rhoades said.
“We are aware of the allegations,” said Baylee Lakey, Stitt’s communications director. “Because it is an ongoing lawsuit and personnel matter, there will be no further comment.”
Biologist Dan Reinking said he still runs into folks from time to time who recall the sight of prairie chickens on opening day of the hunting season.
“They recall the glory days when they would go out to John Dahl (Wildlife Management Area), and they talk about how the sky opened up with prairie chickens flying everywhere. That was just a few decades ago,” he said.
Reinking and other Oklahomans who have tracked bird populations for decades were not surprised that a recent study by a team headed by Kenneth V. Rosenberg of Cornell Lab of Ornithology that showed North America’s breeding bird populations have decreased 29 percent overall since 1970.
They also note that Oklahoma will play a key role in the future as a prairie state, with the study showing big declines in common grassland birds such as sparrows, blackbirds and meadowlarks — and, of course, prairie chickens. Part of the battle ahead may come right into people’s backyards.
Instead of a focus only on birds nearing extinction, the study points out a loss of nearly 3 billion breeding birds. In other words, more than a quarter of the continent’s population of birds has been lost in a half century; one in four breeding birds come springtime.
Most are from groups considered “common” or “abundant.” More than 90 percent of the total cumulative loss can be attributed to 12 bird families, including warblers, blackbirds, finches and sparrows (not “house sparrows,” which are an invasive finch species), according to the study.
The study looks at numbers and not causes but does mention such things as urban sprawl, cats, use of pesticides and herbicides, and habitat loss. Climate change may be part of the picture, and recent studies have shown a broad loss in abundance of insects worldwide that birds rely upon for food.
“It gets complicated looking at all the different factors,” said Scott Loss, assistant professor in the Oklahoma State University Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management.
“We have a grand challenge going forward. This has the potential to be another ‘Silent Spring’ moment,” he said in reference to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book that is widely credited for the birth of the modern environmental movement. “We’ve drastically changed the number of birds and on a widespread scale.”
The study crossed Loss’ wheelhouse because he studies global change ecology management — which isn’t just global climate change but things such as urban sprawl and pesticide use, essentially any factors that create conflicts between humans and wildlife, he said.
“Things like birds colliding with glass, which happens across the entire landscape with large buildings in Oklahoma City and Tulsa but also at our homes,” he said. “Another big threat is free-ranging and pet cats. … It’s studying on a more local scale to understand how to manage those factors.”
Among birds listed as declining are many familiar in Oklahoma backyards, including American robins, down 20 million; northern cardinals, down 11 million; nuthatches, down 7 million; and red-winged blackbirds, down more than 90 million. Good news for Oklahoma’s state bird, the scissor-tailed flycatcher, is that its numbers are down a relatively slight factor, only 2.3 million.
“A lot of it is huge losses of abundant species,” Loss said. “Even if they are still a commonly seen bird, losing a huge number of them can be impactful.”
Scissor-tailed flycatchers likely are doing better because they are adaptable, he said. “You’ll see them nesting on power poles next to a shopping mall.”
Reinking, a senior biologist at the Sutton Avian Research Center in Bartlesville and author of winter-bird and breeding-bird atlases for Oklahoma, also is coordinator of the United States Geological Survey’s annual Breeding Bird Survey for Oklahoma. Surveys from across the country contributed data for the study. Oklahoma ornithologists have done the survey since the mid 1960s, he said.
“Other than the Christmas Bird Count it’s one of our longest-running and most intensive efforts in Oklahoma,” he said. “Anyone can go to the website and look at the results and drill down to even specific routes and look at the changes over a 10-year period. … It’s color coded so you can see at a glance what are the big declines and what are the increases.”
Notable among the survey data are annual increases of 20 percent for Canada geese, 40 percent for the invasive Eurasian collard dove and 10 percent for fish crows, while orchard orioles and loggerhead shrikes are down roughly 5 percent per year and Bell’s vireo are down 2.5 percent in Oklahoma, he said.
While the Cornell study notes that the continental population of grassland birds such as the eastern meadowlark have declined nearly 50 percent continent-wide, the trend on the Oklahoma survey shows them down about 2.5 percent per year the past 10 years.
Amateur birders also fit into the study picture, and Tulsa has been home to a National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count annually since 1926. Some of the long-term data from that count worked into the most recent study, and it also made headlines in 2009.
A 40-year analysis of the counts showed 48 of 305 common, widespread species in North America have shifted their wintering grounds more than 200 miles northward. It created additional buzz around climate change debates at the time and still is cited by the Environmental Protection Agency as a change indicator.
With 25 years running the same route for the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count and now as Tulsa-area coordinator, Jeff Cox said the annual ups and downs are always noticed in the survey area north of Tulsa, but often it’s hard to see the bigger picture.
Long term, the things that stand out are the lack of prairie chickens and prairie songbirds, but gains of hawks and eagles and things such as white-winged doves and Canada geese have increased.
Landscape changes are obvious for the people who run the same route year after year, he said. Most noticeable are prairie or pasture areas that now are over-grazed or replaced by housing developments, Cox said.
While the Cornell study focuses on numbers and not causes, the study will inspire more scientists to look at the causes behind the declines and, perhaps, come up with solutions, he said.
There are things people can do now, but the puzzle for this wide variety of birds, many of which migrate thousands of miles overseas, likely will be more difficult.
“It’s more than just banning something like DDT,” Cox said.
A widespread issue calls for widespread changes and broad public support for conservation measures such as the Migratory Bird Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, he said.
Everyone can do their part, even if it’s only putting items up on windows on their home to prevent collisions or keeping their cats inside, Loss said. Cats are responsible for the loss of billions of songbirds in the U.S. annually, he said.
“Generally, we know how do to it,” the Sutton Center’s Reinking said. “We know how to save birds, and we’ve done it. It’s a matter of public support and financial support and enough people to care about it to make it happen.”
OKLAHOMA CITY — U.S. Sen. James Lankford predicted Friday that the House would impeach President Donald Trump before the end of the year for political reasons.
“I think the House is going to impeach the president,” Lankford said at an Oklahoma City luncheon sponsored by Americans for Prosperity.
“I think they’ve been looking for a way to impeach the president for years. I think they’re upset with him politically.”
Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, said the “target seems to be they’re going to do the impeachment process in the House before Thanksgiving, definitely before Christmas.”
The Chef Issue of Tulsa World Magazine will be in home-delivered newspapers Saturday and at more than 100 locations across Tulsa.
In addition to Tulsa’s culinary legends and some of its food trendsetters, this edition celebrates Tulsa businesswomen for their contributions to the community and how they will affect it in the future.
You also will be able to find the magazine at more than 100 locations across Tulsa, including Boomtown Tees, 114 S. Elgin Ave.; Mother Road Market, 1124 S. Lewis Ave.; and Mecca Coffee, 1330 E. 41st St.
Look for Tulsa World Magazine in your home-delivered Tulsa World on Saturday, Oct. 5.
To subscribe to the Tulsa World or to Tulsa World Magazine, go to tulsaworld.com/subscribe or call 918-582-0921 or toll free at 800-444-6552.
Copies of the magazine can also be ordered online at tulsaworldmagazine.com or mailed to you for $4.95 by calling 918-581-8584.