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.”