R. Stephen Haynes hired to conduct special investigation into The City of Blackwell's financial dealings

by Jordan Green

Oklahoma municipal judge R. Stephen Haynes has been appointed by a 3-2 vote of the Blackwell City Council to conduct a special investigation to determine whether or not the city has made improper contracts with or purchases from its municipal officers and the investigation will also include the harassment allegations.

Haynes was appointed during the Council meeting on Thursday.

According to City Manager Janet Smith, the investigation will “more than likely” look into the city's contracts with G&C Concrete, which was owned by Mayor T.J. Greenfield until the company shuttered in early 2018.

“Basically, if someone owns a greater percentage than 25 percent of a business, it's considered a conflict of interest,” Smith said.

The city manager recommended that Haynes be appointed the city's special legal counsel due to his experience as a municipal judge and his “no nonsense” approach to legal matters.

According to his resume, Haynes currently serves as the municipal judge for eight municipalities in Oklahoma, including the cities of Spencer, Luther, Valley Brook, Geary, Crescent, Choctaw, and Nichols Hills. Haynes served as the judge in Crescent when Smith served as manager there.

Smith said it has been “no secret” that she has known Haynes since around 2016, but said that she will not direct the special investigation. Haynes' investigation will be based on a preliminary one conducted by Margaret McMorrow Love, who was also being considered as a candidate for the special legal counsel position, according to Smith.

“The only outcome he has in mind is, 'Was the law abided by, or was it not?' He makes a decision on that. He doesn't have a bias, and I feel like we will get a very unbiased investigation,” she said. “I'm not going to direct him. We already have a preliminary report that is going to direct him. The Council will be involved in this, and so it's really an investigation that the Council has determined is going to happen. … At this point, I do not have an outcome that I want, and I shouldn't. I should be completely separate from that investigation. I don't want to direct it nor do I want to taint it. It has been called for by the Council, and they are the ones directing it.”

Haynes, who spoke to the Journal-Tribune following his appointment, also said he will not be swayed.

“I've been a judge for a little over 40 years, and there's nothing in this investigation or any investigation that would cause me to not approach this fairly and even-handedly,” he said. “I'm hired by cities to be their municipal judge, and defendants appearing before me are found 'not guilty' all the time. That's an impartiality.”

While he will be investigating the possibility of improper actions by city officers, Haynes said he will not act in a “prosecutorial mode.” But his findings could be used by someone who does have the power to prosecute should the Council allow it, he said.

“My focus is to try to gain enough facts that the city, for whatever purposes it deems appropriate, can answer questions, whether that's to the auditors or the district attorney or the public. That's for [the Council] to determine,” he said.

Haynes said he will provide a report of his investigation to Council members. It is not yet known whether the outline will be released to the public, but it will be presented to the Council confidentially, he said. Haynes added that he doesn't believe the investigation will take a long time.

“I don't anticipate that it will be lengthy,” Haynes said. “Delay leads to speculation.”

The investigation will take place as the city of Blackwell prepares to be audited by the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector General's Office, a process expected to begin this month, according to Smith.

This marks the second state audit of the city of Blackwell within the last decade. The most recent audit – which took place from 2011 to 2014 – revealed that the city did not have an updated purchasing manual for use by city officials, and that the city had not properly released quarterly itemized statements of purchases, among other findings.

According to City Councilman Steve Marquardt, the findings from the 2014 audit have never been addressed by city leaders. That's why the city is being audited again, he said, and finding solutions to those problems will be a main goal of Haynes' investigation.

“We're hiring [Haynes] to look over the things that have been brought up for the reasons of the state audit,” Marquardt said. “We found out that, in 2012, when we had that audit, the exact same things they found in the 2012 audit, they're saying they also found in this newest audit. Nothing had changed. That is the reason that I want to have a bipartisan person, not from here, but who is familiar with municipalities, to come in and look over all of our policies, rules, and regulations to see what we need to fix.”

One of Marquardt's hopes for the investigation is that the city of Blackwell will become a more transparent one that residents “can trust.”

“That's the reason why we hired our city manager, Janet Smith, to make sure that we do become a very transparent city,” he said. “I want the citizens after this to feel like they can now trust the city with those new checks and balances.”

Marquardt voted to appoint Haynes to the position after calling 20 other attorneys to ask if they had the time to conduct such an investigation and to ask what their hourly working rates were. He said that Haynes' hourly working rates “were not out-of-line” and that Haynes was the only attorney who has the time to conduct the investigation “right away.”

“He's going to look at everything,” Marquardt said.