The general counsel for the Oklahoma State Department of Health, who abruptly left her post Friday, faces criminal charges of falsely reporting a crime and creating a fictitious email to send herself threats over the agency’s work on the state’s new medical marijuana program.
Julie Ezell submitted her resignation Friday afternoon from the Health Department, hours after the filing of two lawsuits challenging emergency rules approved by the state Board of Health on July 10 regarding State Question 788.
“I’m so sorry,” Ezell said at 5:22 p.m. Friday to interim Health Commissioner Tom Bates in an email obtained Tuesday morning by the Tulsa World. Ezell, according to a probable cause affidavit, allegedly confessed to an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent about two hours before tendering her resignation that she sent false threats to her Health Department email address.
Ezell is charged in Oklahoma County District Court with two felonies and one misdemeanor.
She turned herself in at the Oklahoma County jail Tuesday evening and was released after posting bond, being fingerprinted and being photographed.
Court records filed Tuesday afternoon allege that Ezell used a fictitious account created on ProtonMail, an end-to-end encrypted email service, on July 8 to send emails to herself. She is also accused of making a fraudulent report the next day about receiving harassing electronic communications over SQ 788 and providing false evidence to the OSBI throughout its inquiry into the matter.
Health Department spokesman Tony Sellars said Tuesday afternoon that the agency would not comment on Ezell’s departure. Former Interim Health Commissioner Preston Doerflinger, who himself resigned in February amid allegations that he committed domestic violence against his now ex-wife, hired Ezell as general counsel in November.
Sellars said Bates, Chief Operating Officer Kim Bailey and a staff attorney will review legal issues until Ezell is replaced. State payroll records indicate that Ezell’s annual regular salary would have been just more than $125,000.
Ezell’s attorney, Ed Blau, released a statement praising Ezell as being a “loyal and dedicated public servant” during her career.
“These charges do not reflect who she is as a person, nor do they reflect the type of advocate she has been for the people of the State of Oklahoma,” Blau said via email. “These allegations will be answered, and additional relevant information will be provided by us at the appropriate time.”
The OSBI issued a news release seemingly expressing frustration about the situation, noting the resources the department used to investigate what it contends turned out to be false allegations.
“During the investigation, nine OSBI agents, three officers with Edmond Police Department and two officers with OU Health Science Center were dispatched to work the case and to ensure Ezell’s safety to and from work and home,” the release states.
A consented search of Ezell’s phone on Thursday, according to the affidavit, revealed that its browser had accessed the signup page for ProtonMail just before 2 a.m. July 8 — minutes after there were internet searches, including on the website Reddit, seeking information on whether ProtonMail logged IP addresses and payment information.
Shortly after reaching the signup page, investigators from the OSBI reported they were able to determine that Ezell’s cellphone browser had accessed the inbox for the ProtonMail account firstname.lastname@example.org.
Less than a half hour after reviewing the inbox, Ezell reportedly sent a text message saying, “F---, text me when you are up. I just got a pretty threatening email about medical marijuana.” She had deleted her internet search history relating to her access of ProtonMail at that time and did so again after sending herself another threatening email, subsequently sending another text message to apparently the same undisclosed recipient, saying, “Another one.”
One of the emails sent to Ezell’s Health Department address on July 8 said, “We will stop YOU and your greed. Any way it takes to end your evil and protect what is ours. We will watch you.”
The same day there was an email stating, “We will expose your corruption and evil. We would hate to hurt a pretty lady. You will hear us. We are just beginning.”
Four hours before the emergency rules were approved July 10, Ezell’s inbox had a message from the same email address that says, “You won’t be able to ignore us today. Check yourself.” Later that day, Ezell’s inbox had a message from the account that contained her home address and descriptions of her vehicles.
Another message that day said, “You impose laws like a dictator and respect none of them,” while another sent on July 11 read, “You appear distinguished in glasses. Wear them for the camera.”
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter announced Monday that his office, by request of Bates, would provide advice to the Health Department regarding legal challenges to SQ 788 rules brought in Cleveland and Oklahoma county courts. Hunter said he hoped to provide a response by the end of the week.
The letter Bates sent to Hunter on Monday requesting advice did not disclose that Ezell had left the agency but conceded that there was “a conflict” because Ezell had advised the health board against adopting last-minute amendments to proposed emergency rules.
The board, in a 5-4 vote, agreed to approve a ban on the sale of smokable marijuana products, drawing widespread bipartisan outrage. In an 8-1 vote, the board also voted to require that pharmacists must be on site at dispensaries during operating hours.
SQ 788 will take effect July 26, and the Health Department has maintained that it remains on track to begin receiving licensing applications on Aug. 25.