Politics may be a dirty business, but threats to Oklahoma legislators over the past 12 months have some public officials saying lines have been crossed.
In 2017, four members of the Oklahoma Legislature contacted Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater to say they believed they were being followed or tracked. Two weeks into 2018, a leader of the Oklahoma House of Representatives has already received a death threat. Another House member has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to determine who placed a tracking device on his pickup truck.
“They need to be prepared to face the consequences,” Prater said of any individuals or groups hiring private investigators to follow lawmakers. “It’s a very serious matter and can lead to people getting hurt.”
Prater said tracking or following anyone creates a heightened risk of danger for all parties.
“If you believe someone is watching you, you also have to be concerned about your personal safety, the safety of your family,” Prater said. “You don’t know if they know where you live, you don’t know if they know where your children go to school. You don’t know what they’re going to do with that information. You have no idea who this is.”
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Prater said any time a lawmaker believes they are being tracked, the scope of the danger can be broad.
“Though there may be assumptions that those who have placed these tracking devices or have put live surveillance in place that they are related to some legislation or potential legislation or those involved on a side of legislation, it may not be that at all,” he said. “It could also be the criminal element that is involved with this. So you just don’t know. It’s a very serious matter.”
‘The purpose is intimidation’
In the spring of 2017 during regular session, the four Republican co-authors of a bill to re-establish drug possession felony offenses near schools met with House leadership to discuss a report that private investigators might be following them. Each of those four lawmakers — Rep. Tim Downing (R-Purcell), Rep. Mike Sanders (R-Kingfisher), Rep. Leslie Osborn (R-Mustang) and then-Rep. Scott Biggs (R-Chickasha) — confirmed the story with NonDoc, though Biggs declined to comment.
“This was all told to me initially through our House leadership chain. So people were actually alerted, kind of at the highest levels that, ‘Hey, you have members who are being followed,'” Downing said. “From there, I confirmed it with different personal contacts that I’ve made and then within the private investigator community. We actually had the names provided and the sources of who was hiring them and things of that nature.”
House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC) said he received information from local private investigators that a New York investigation firm had reached out to Oklahoma private investigators to follow lawmakers associated with efforts to modify State Question 780, which had passed months earlier. He said he did not publicize the situation at the time because he and law enforcement could not prove conclusively which Oklahoma groups or individuals were involved.
“The purpose is intimidation,” Echols said about the tracking of lawmakers. “It’s to make you think, did they come on your property at night? What type of people did this? If they’re willing to go that far, what else are they willing to do? That’s the goal — to intimidate. Not to have fair, open, public debate. The goal is to intimidate them into doing what they want them to be doing.”
Sanders called the tracking of lawmakers “amateur hour.”
“I do know with certainty that I was (followed),” Sanders said. “At that particular point, I said, ‘This is a first.’ I’ve worked for the president of the United States. I’ve worked on presidential campaigns.
“I took precautions, and obviously it’s a little unnerving. I’m not going to lie.”
Sanders said he had his truck searched inside and out, and Osborn said she took the same precaution with her vehicle.
“It was kind of frightening to think that, in Oklahoma politics, because you co-authored a bill there would be a group who would put the money and the effort into hiring someone to follow you,” Osborn said. “I would call it unsettling, and that’s why I proactively reached out and hired a private investigator of my own just to check my car.”
Osborn said her investigator did not find a tracking device or find anyone tailing her.
“That’s a step too far to feel like because of the way you would vote on legislation that someone would be that intrusive into your personal life,” Osborn said. “That’s when society and politics have gone a step too far, in my belief.”
Osborn said such guerrilla political tactics have broad effects.
“It’s also, I believe, why good people don’t want to go into politics,” Osborn said. “It’s hard to recruit candidates when they hear about those kinds of tactics. It’s hard for people to want to put their families through that.”
Downing agreed, saying the job of legislator already comes with “all the stresses that everyone envisions of being normal.”
“Then when you get down to the level where people are literally just wanting to take you out and make your family feel fearful, it does run through your head of, ‘Man, is this worth it to serve to create this type of liability for you and your family?'” Downing said.
‘You just become numb to it’
Echols is no stranger to the unusual risks a public profile can pose for a family. As a child, his mother was a family court judge.
“We had a group that put poisonous snakes through the mail slot at my parents’ law office growing up,” Echols said.
Between that and years of angry messages from complete strangers, Echols said he believes he has become numb to threats. Perhaps too numb, considering a voicemail he received earlier this month.
“I got a voicemail that said, ‘I’m going to kill you in four days’ and quoting a lot of scripture way out of context to justify him killing me,” Echols said. “It seemed a bit far for me, but my first gut (reaction) wasn’t to turn it over. I emailed it to a couple friends of mine that I office with in the private sector and said, ‘What do you guys think?’ And 30 seconds later I got a response back in all caps: ‘SEND THIS TO THE POLICE.’ You know, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ So you just become numb to it.”
For Downing, a freshman lawmaker who spent five years addressing criminal appeals for the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, the vitriol he encountered as a legislator outpaced any he encountered as a prosecutor.
“It bothered me, and I told my wife,” Downing said of learning he was being followed. “And it seemed for like a season there that we were nervous that people were going to jack with us, and you didn’t know what that was going to look like.”
He said media discussions of the criminal justice reform roll-back bill gave him even more concern.
“It stirred up a lot of your typical social-media-type death threats of, ‘We’re going to blow up the Capitol building,'” Downing recalled. “Or it would have pictures of me or Scott (and say) ‘We’re going to sit out in the parking lot and shoot people.’
“This was my first two months of being in the Legislature.”
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation’s public information director, Jessica Brown, said the agency has original jurisdiction to investigate threats to public officials.
“You have to take them seriously,” Brown said. “Many of the potential threats we get by lawmakers are not threats in the legal sense, however, they feel threatened by them, so we still investigate them.
“Most of them do not go to the district attorney for charges.”
Prater said prosecuting instances of lawmakers being tracked or followed depends on the facts of each situation.
“We have to determine what exactly the behavior is, what exactly it is that is occurring, not just the allegation of being tracked, followed or stalked,” Prater said. “Then [we] apply those facts to the state statutes and determine if there is a criminal act that can possibly be investigated.”
He emphasized that anyone pursuing such activities should understand the potential ramifications.
“Without trying to be sensational about it, people can be hurt or killed in these types of situations,” Prater said. “Is it going to lead to violence? Most likely not, but you just don’t know who you’re dealing with.”