(Update: at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 17 — about 30 minutes after the publication of this article — District Attorney Paul Smith told NonDoc he had spoken with Attorney General John O’Connor’s office Tuesday for a third time and had decided to reduce his employment at Holdenville High School to part-time. The article has been updated below to reflect Smith’s decision and to include comments from Rep. Ronny Johns.)
Paul Smith may have been the highest-paid public school teacher in Oklahoma when classes started last week, but it’s a distinction that has come with controversy.
Smith, whose contract as an adjunct high school teacher was approved by the Holdenville Public Schools Board in June, has four and a half months remaining in his elected position as District 22 district attorney, making him the chief prosecutor of Pontotoc, Seminole and Hughes counties at the same time he spends five days a week instructing dozens of high school students about U.S. government.
“I’m pretty well hooked up now. I’ll be glad when I only have one job to do, yes,” Smith said Monday. “I probably bit off a little bit more that I’m not sure I can chew right now, but I’m confident to do the best I can. I think I’m serving both employers well, and if I didn’t think I could do it, I wouldn’t.”
Smith began his new high school teaching job when Holdenville began its school year last week, and he had been teaching six U.S. government courses and monitoring one study hall as a full-time adjunct instructor.
While he viewed himself as a public servant burning both ends of the candle to help a variety of Oklahomans, Smith’s two full-time jobs were going to total about $200,000 in public payroll and give him double qualification for state pension deposits. The situation raised questions about one man’s ability to hold two public positions and drew criticism from the incoming district attorney slated to succeed Smith in January, Erik johnson.
“Maybe I’m wrong — but I don’t think I am — I look at it that he is violating his oath of office in not giving his full time and attention to his position of district attorney,” Johnson said. “I just don’t think it’s fair to the district and to the citizens to go September, October, November and December with no DA (fully) at the post.”
Smith made his initial comments about the situation to NonDoc on Monday. But on Wednesday, about 30 minutes after the publication of this story, he said further discussion with the Attorney General’s Office had led him to reduce his Holdenville High School employment to a part-time adjunct position, teaching slightly more than half a school day.
“I offered that this is a lot of hubbub about stuff I’ve been doing a long time. If it’s a problem, I can go part time. They encouraged me that that would be the prudent thing to do. I talked to the school people and they are fine with that, so I’m going part time as of today,” Smith said. “I don’t know what the hubbub is all about. You know, over the years, lots of people have taught as an adjunct teacher in a lot of different circumstances and places and have held the job I hold, or a prosecutor or assistant DA.”
Asked what his new teaching schedule will be, Smith said he will still start with his first class at 8:05 a.m., take lunch and then teach one or two classes in the afternoon.
“It’s several classes. But I am part time. I get out early in the afternoon, and that’s what I do,” Smith said. “I don’t know how it’s going to shake out. I suspect it will be half plus a little bit, maybe.”
Smith said he will be on his way back to his district attorney offices “shortly after 1 p.m.”
‘I’m going in early most days’
In his mind on Monday, Smith said he was confident he was able to complete two jobs at once — heading into the District Attorney’s Office early, then returning after school and working late nights and weekends.
This past Saturday and Sunday, Smith said, he spent several hours working on the high-profile case of Karl Fontenot. (Smith faces a fall deadline to refile murder charges against Fontenot after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, in which Fontenot has claimed innocence regarding the death of Donna “Denice” Haraway.)
“I’m going in early most days to the DA’s office and checking business there, and then I’m going in in the late afternoon and evening working there,” Smith said Monday. “That’s my typical deal right now.”
Randy Davenport, superintendent of Holdenville Public Schools, said Smith was hired under the expanded adjunct instructor rules of SB 1119, which the Legislature passed this spring in response to the state’s teacher shortage. Previously, Smith would not have qualified to teach during all seven Holdenville High School class periods as an unlicensed adjunct.
“So far, he has done everything above and beyond, which I expect a professional to do,” Davenport said Monday. “We expect good things out of him. Kids, the first couple of days, seem to really like him.”
Davenport said he was “not sure” is Smith was still employed as district attorney, but he said Smith provided a copy of a 2008 attorney general’s opinion on the legality of being dual employed. Davenport said the AG opinion was placed in Smith’s school personnel file.
“I do know when we visited with him he was going to continue as district attorney for a while because of an AG opinion that was written,” Davenport said. “We hired a highly, highly qualified teacher for our kids. What he does for the district attorney’s office and the [attorney general], that’s between him and them.”
Smith said Monday that he had met with a member of Attorney General John O’Connor’s staff over the summer and then had a follow-up phone call July 28 with Julie Pittman, who heads the office’s AG opinion area. Smith said he taught adjunct classes at Seminole State College for 13 years and that his new job as an adjunct high school teacher is similar, despite the difference in time commitment.
“If I thought for a minute I was doing something wrong or illegal, I wouldn’t be doing it,” Smith said, referring to Title 51, Section 6 of state statute.
The statute is titled, “Officers and deputies not to hold other office.” At the State Capitol, that law is often cited as the reason legislators are not allowed to hold school district contracts as teachers. Smith, however, said it does not apply to his situation.
“I looked at that, too. I also met with the Attorney General’s Office about that, and they cleared the way for me to do this or else I wouldn’t be doing it,” Smith said Monday. “So I’m not a state officer and employee for purposes of being an adjunct school teacher.”
NonDoc asked Attorney General John O’Connor’s office to articulate their interpretation of the law as it relates to Smith’s ability to serve as a district attorney and a full-time high school government teacher. Madelyn Hague, press secretary for O’Connor, confirmed the conversations with Smith but said “subsequent facts have come to light” that are being reviewed.
“Based on the facts initially presented by DA Smith to the Attorney General’s Office, it was our understanding there was no violation of state law,” Hague said. “However, subsequent facts have come to light that could make us change our conclusion and we are working with DA Smith to reconcile that.”
Rep. Ronny Johns (R-Ada) was a junior high school principal when he was elected to the Oklahoma House in 2018.
“I know when I was elected to the Legislature, I couldn’t get sworn in until I had resigned or retired as an educator. So I finished out the semester and I retired at the semester.”
Johns emphasized that he had nothing bad to say about Smith, but he said he found the circumstances unusual and was unsure why the law preventing legislators from teaching would not also apply to district attorneys.
“I wish Paul the best of luck in his (upcoming) retirement from DA and applaud him for going into teaching when we are in such desperate need of teachers,” Johns said.
Asked if he thought he could have simultaneously served as a district attorney during his teaching career, Johns replied: “No, sir.”
On Monday, Smith said he also had discussed the matter with the District Attorney’s Council, which is scheduled to hold its monthly meeting Thursday morning.
“It was also cleared through the District Attorney’s Council, again when my political enemies called to raise trouble about it,” Smith said.
Asked who constitutes his “political enemies,” Smith pointed to Johnson, a screen-printing business owner who served nine years as an assistant district attorney in Coal County.
“He’s the one stirring the pot,” Smith said.
Asked the origin of his differences with Johnson, Smith pointed to the simple fact that he was challenged in the 2022 election.
“I don’t know. He filed to run against me,” Smith said. “It made it fairly easy for me to decide not to (run for reelection). I’ve been doing this a long time — 37 years — and I’ve done a lot of stuff that people would want to do if they were going to be DA.”
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Johnson: ‘I definitely think it’s wrong’
Johnson, who was elected by default after Smith decided not to run and no one else filed for the District 22 DA position, said he is motivated by what he calls the best interest of Pontotoc, Seminole and Hughes County citizens: not having a district attorney split his time with another full-time job.
“You’re in a post of public confidence. You have authority vested in you by the law, and you have to stand your post and do your best job you can every day,” Johnson said of the DA position. “My commitment is to do the very best job for the district while I’m there, and it’s concerning to me that, apparently, Paul doesn’t have the same desire to serve the district in the tail end of his term.”
Johnson said regardless of whether a 2008 Attorney General’s opinion would stand up in a court of law, the conflict from Smith’s two public jobs seems simple.
“How do you explain it to John Q. Citizen? Go find any person shopping at Walmart,” Johnson said. “How do you explain it to them without making it look like he’s just taking money? That’s the taxpayer’s perception. I just don’t think it’s right.
“I definitely think it’s wrong.”
Smith, who is slated to teach economics for the school year’s second semester after his term as DA ends, said he has nothing to hide because he is “an open book guy.” On Tuesday, he pondered how Johnson will be able to operate his private businesses while serving as district attorney.
“You might ask Johnson how he’s going to run his cigar shop and his t-shirt shop and start a beer joint or whatever he’s doing and how he’s going to split his time,” Smith said Tuesday.
Smith was appointed District 22 DA in 2017 and won election to a full term in 2018 with 58.9 percent of the vote. Since then, he has handled the prosecution of a number of violent crimes and has navigated the jurisdictional adjustments following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma. Earlier this year, Smith secured prison sentences for James and Rebecca Jackson, former members of the Wetumka City Council who pleaded guilty to sex crimes.
He said he has always had a passion for education and for supporting young people.
“In all my teaching career or being in the District Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor, that’s what I’ve tried to do — encourage and inspire young people from all walks of life to make better decisions, be involved in civics and social studies and government and politics and be a public servant,” Smith said. “That’s what I’m trying to do now in secondary education with high school kids.”
(Correction: This article was updated at 4:35 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 17, to correct reference to Rep. Ronny John’s employment as an educator.)