Oklahoma County District Attorney candidates Vicki Behenna and Kevin Calvey attacked each other’s ethics and competence while scuffling over the county jail and prosecuting police accused of excessive force, but they found common ground on marijuana decriminalization during a debate Tuesday night hosted by NonDoc, News 9 and The Oklahoman at The Auditorium at The Douglass.

Behenna, a Democrat, spent much of her career as a federal prosecutor, including working on the prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombing. After leading the Oklahoma Innocence Project for several years, she now works in private practice. Calvey, a Republican, was formerly in the Oklahoma Legislature and currently serves on the Oklahoma County Board of County Commissioners and the jail trust.

Calvey defeated Oklahoma County assistant district attorney Gayland Gieger in a heated August runoff. Behenna easily won the Democratic Party’s nomination in June, beating Mark Myles. They are now heading to the general election Nov. 8. The winner will replace the current DA, David Prater, who is retiring after 16 years in the office.

Sharpest jabs come late in debate

Oklahoma County DA
Candidates for the Oklahoma County district attorney’s office, Kevin Calvey, left, and Vicki Behenna, right, participated in a debate in Oklahoma City on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022. (Bryan Terry / The Oklahoman)

The candidates mostly stuck to discussing issues throughout the debate, but they did exchange barbs on credibility and ethics. Calvey accused Behenna of acting unethically while representing Bobby Chris Mayes, the former owner of Big Red Sports and Imports in Norman, who was recently convicted of wire fraud and other crimes along with Big Red co-owner Courtney Wells and another co-defendant. They are now awaiting sentencing.

Wells and her husband have been missing for several months, and Mayes’ defense team — including Behenna — recently submitted emails and other documents to the court aimed at exonerating Mayes and placing the blame for the crime on Wells. Calvey said during the debate that Wells and her husband were likely murdered, and he accused Behenna of knowingly filing false documents to the court. Behenna stood behind the documents and said Wells likely went into hiding to avoid sentencing.

“My opponent’s actions in this case are a stain on the record,” Calvey said late in the debate. “Even in the unlikely event that Ms. Behenna were elected to DA, she’d have to be removed from office soon thereafter because of this ethical stain.”

Behenna responded: “He has no idea what he’s talking about.”

Meanwhile, Behenna criticized Calvey for being under investigation by state law enforcement for allegations related to a contractor performing work for both his county office and for his campaign. Calvey blamed the investigation on Prater and called it politically motivated.

Behenna also critiqued Calvey’s insistence that he would not prosecute police currently under indictment in the shooting death of Stavian Rodriguez. Behenna said pre-determination of cases without reviewing all case documents and facts is reckless.

“Quite honestly, Mr. Calvey’s statements are pandering to law enforcement, in order to get their vote,” she said. “Nobody in their right mind who has ever prosecuted a case would look at a video on TV and decide that those charges were not proper. That’s what makes him so dangerous as a district attorney. There is all sorts of evidence involved in this case. I don’t know what it is. I’ve not seen it. But I understand body cam footage taken from different views might substantiate that it was an unreasonable use of force.”

In return, Calvey accused Behenna of pandering to “these anti-police people” in the Democratic Party.

Candidates diverge on abortion rights

Vicki Behenna, Democrat candidate for Oklahoma County district attorney, answers a question a during debate in Oklahoma City on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022. (Bryan Terry / The Oklahoman)

In May, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed one of the toughest state laws in the nation restricting abortions following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson, which gave states the power to make their own laws on abortion. In many states with conservative governors and legislatures, such as Oklahoma, this had meant an end of access to safe and legal abortion services.

Behenna criticized the state’s abortion restrictions.

“I believe it is pure and simple overreach by the government to issue those laws,” Behenna said. “I’ve been talking to doctors throughout Oklahoma County, and they are concerned that their medical judgment has been usurped by the state government.”

Calvey said women who want to obtain an abortion can simply drive to Kansas.

“Here’s what the practical result of these laws is: Women can still obtain a legal abortion for any reason about two hours away, in Wichita, Kansas,” Calvey said. “Abortion is thus less convenient than before, but hardly impossible. I doubt an Oklahoma doctor is willing to risk a civil lawsuit, losing their license, etc., to do an abortion illegally when there is a legal alternative not far away.”

Both candidates said they do not plan to prosecute people for seeking an abortion or aiding in obtaining one.

“So, will I prosecute a woman for seeking or obtaining an abortion? No. Will I prosecute a woman for traveling to another state to obtain an abortion, or someone to assist in doing so? No,” Calvey said. “What an Oklahoman does in another state is up to that state’s laws, not Oklahoma’s laws.”

Asked if they would prosecute a doctor who performs an abortion in Oklahoma, both candidates said they believe the prosecutorial decision simply will not come up because physicians in the state are not performing abortions now.

“I would not say ‘never,'” Calvey said. “There’s all kind of factors that could be involved. It would be my intent not to.”

Behenna also said she would need to know more about the specific context.

“I would want to know the facts and circumstances surrounding that abortion,” she said. “Is he just setting up a shop down the street? Or is he terminating a pregnancy because that child or that fetus is not viable? All those facts matter in making those decisions.”

Candidates spar on jail issues

Kevin Calvey, Republican candidate for Oklahoma County district attorney, answers a question during a debate in Oklahoma City on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022. (Bryan Terry / The Oklahoman)

In years past, the Oklahoma County Jail was operated by the sheriff’s Office. The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority, an oversight body known as the jail trust, took over in July 2019. Over the past two years, 28 people have died at the Oklahoma County Jail, which has led some to criticize the jail trust and the jail’s administrator, Greg Williams.

Calvey, a member of the jail trust, defended the work of the trust and pointed to voters’ approval of a new $297 million jail in June.

“So, first of all, I asked my tough questions not on the horseshoe, but one-on-one with Mr. Williams and his staff,” Calvey said. “So my goal as county commissioner was to get a new jail without a tax increase. Thanks to voters, it will now be a reality and that’s going to solve a lot of problems. None of that would have happened without the jail trust.”

Calvey said the jail has been doing better under the trust than when the sheriff operated it, adding that progress takes time.

“The jail trust is more transparent,” Calvey said. “That’s why you still see the former sheriff got the Black Hole Award from Freedom of Information of Oklahoma for not releasing [information]. There’s about 80,000 pages of records of violence in the jail that were never released to the public. So violence is way, way down. It is not perfect. They’re making progress. You can’t solve 30 years of mismanagement in such a short time.”

Behenna said Calvey has used the sheriff’s issues with the jail as a shield to deflect from the trust’s troubles managing the facility.

“I know Mr. Calvey wants to blame his predecessor and the people that came before him, but, quite honestly, more people have died this year alone in the Oklahoma County Jail, and there has been more contraband introduced in the jail just in the past year,” Behenna said. “I will, as a district attorney, get involved in understanding what’s lacking in the jail trust and the operations. Most of these are pretrial detainees. These are not people that have been convicted of any crimes. These are people that we presumed to be innocent until proven guilty that should not have died.”

Calvey dismissed jail deaths as being more about the health of detainees when they arrive than about mismanagement at the jail.

“So, first of all, the reason most the people who die in this jail do, is they’re about on death’s door when they’re brought to the jail,” Calvey said. “It used to be that the DA’s office would approve more medical [own recognizance] bonds. The jail staff tries to get people medically OR’d out and now, because the current DA does not like the jail trust, he is denying them.”

Behenna said that, in addition to detainee deaths, recent incidents at the jail, including sexual assault, and the ongoing problem of contraband getting inside the facility are evidence of mismanagement.

“I mean, it is a crime for somebody to bring contraband into a detention facility,” she said. “Those things need to be investigated and prosecuted. It is a crime to allow sexual assaults and rapes to occur in the general intake area. Somebody is not supervising properly. There is no excuse for that kind of behavior, in a facility that’s a detention facility that is run by detention officials who are watching and ensuring safety of the inmates.”

Candidates mostly agree on weed

Candidates for the Oklahoma County district attorney’s office, Kevin Calvey, left, and Vicki Behenna during a debate in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022. (Bryan Terry / The Oklahoman)

With President Joe Biden’s recently announced intent to pardon low-level federal marijuana crimes and relax federal restrictions on the drug, marijuana has become a topic in this fall’s elections. In Oklahoma, SQ 820 — which would pave the way for recreational marijuana use and expunge some past convictions — did not make the November ballot, but it will go before voters soon.

Both candidates were asked if they would vote for SQ 820 and whether they had ever smoked marijuana. Behenna said she had not.

“I know I’m kind of square. But it was just not my thing,” she said. “I don’t like losing control. I don’t drink either. I don’t like the feeling of not being in control of myself and my behavior.”

Calvey answered a little differently.

“I have two of my children in the audience, so all I will say about marijuana — I don’t drink, I don’t use any substances now. The only thing I would say is, yes, I went to college,” he said, drawing laughter from the audience.

Both candidates said they would not prosecute low-level marijuana cases.

“I think that’s the right way to go,” Calvey said when asked if marijuana should be decriminalized.

Behenna responded similarly.

“I would decriminalize for small use (amounts), for someone obviously not trafficking,” she said.

Calvey added that decriminalization would not be a huge departure from current laws and criticized Prater’s handling of the issue.

“First of all, marijuana is basically legal now, and as DA, I will treat marijuana businesses like I would treat businesses with somewhat regulated substance, like cigarettes,” he said. “To the extent of businesses out of compliance with laws governing legal marijuana, the administrative processes should get them back in compliance. Marijuana businesses should not be subject to gotcha game prosecutions, as they have been under the current DA.”