Outside prosecutor appointed to investigate overpayments to Grady County officials
CHICKASHA — Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has appointed an outside prosecutor to investigate current and former Grady County elected officials who received more than $727,000 in overpayments over a 10-year period.
Angela Marsee, district attorney for Custer and four other counties, confirmed Monday that she will be leading the investigation. She will be assisted by District Attorney Greg Mashburn, who serves Cleveland, Garvin and McClain counties.
"We're still making decisions about how we'll proceed," Marsee said. "The munticounty grand jury is absolutely an avenue that we may follow. At this point, I am in the process of reviewing the investigation as well as the criminal and civil law that may be implicated."
Marsee said she doesn't yet know how long the investigation is likely to take.
A state audit last year revealed that since 2008, current and former elected county officials had received more than $727,000 in salary payments that were above the maximum amount allowed by law. Thirteen officials each received overpayments that ranged from $4,987 to $90,959, auditors reported.
The attorney general appointed Marsee to investigate after Grady County District Attorney Jason Hicks stepped aside, citing a conflict of interest because his office provides legal advice to county officers.
In his letter requesting a replacement prosecutor, Hicks said his replacement will need to determine whether the elected officials who received excessive payments had criminal intent and what should be done regarding repayment.
Auditors traced the beginning of the problem to August 2008 when an 18% salary increase was granted to county employees and county officials despite advice from an assistant district attorney that only county employees should receive the raises and elected officials should be excluded.
In Hicks' letter, he noted that some of the elected officials who received raises were present at the meeting where legal advice was given that elected officials should be excluded from pay hikes. That could factor into whether there was criminal intent.
"While I recognize that I am disqualifying from this matter, I do believe that it would be in the best interests of the citizens of Grady County that the special prosecutor present evidence to the multicounty grand jury and allow them to decide whether the conduct was criminal in nature and to issue findings of fact to clear the names of those county officials who were simply being paid for their services to the county and had no part in the overpayment," Hicks wrote.
"I am confident that the majority of the officials involved had no knowledge of the overpayment. In fact, many of the officials came into office after the overpayment began and had no reason to question whether the salary was appropriate. I believe it would be best to allow the munticounty grand jury to make those determinations."
County commissioners voted to cut salaries in August after the excessive payments were discovered and have been in compliance with salary limits since then, auditors said.Grady County, with a population of about 55,000, is just south of Canadian County. The county seat is Chickasha.Auditors identified these current and former Grady County officials as having received excessive salary payments:Former County Commissioner Windle Hardy, $90,959; former County Commissioner Mike Lennier, $59,871; former County Commissioner Jack Porter, $28,120; former County Clerk Sharon Shoemake, $85,972; County Treasurer Robin Burton, $90,959; County Assessor Bari Firestone, $90,959.
Also, former Court Clerk Lois Foster, $20,079; former Sheriff Art Kell, $9,221; Sheriff Jim Weir, $81,402; Court Clerk Lisa Hanna, $70,879; County Commissioner Ralph Beard, $62,839, County Commissioner Kirk Painter, $31,088; and County Clerk Jill Locke, $4,987.Auditors also found that three Grady County Fairgrounds employees received salaries that exceeded legal limits because their salaries exceeded what Grady County elected officials would have received if they had followed the state law that limits their maximum salaries.