Commanche County Commissioner John O'Brien charged embezzlement
Comanche County Commissioner John O'Brien consults with attorney John Zelbst on Wednesday, March 13, 2024, after he was charged with five criminal counts regarding alleged use of a county vehicle for personal errands and alleged sexually explicit text messages sent to employees. (Southwest Ledger)

Comanche County Commissioner John O’Brien could face removal from office after he was charged Wednesday with criminal counts of embezzlement and inappropriate use of a county cell phone to send sexually explicit messages to a county employee, District Attorney Kyle Cabelka said today.

O’Brien was charged with two felony counts of embezzlement by a county official, two misdemeanor counts of outraging the public decency, and one misdemeanor count of computer crimes. Because he provides legal advice to the Comanche County Board of Commissioners in his role as DA, Cabelka recused himself after the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation completed its inquiry into the allegations against O’Brien. Neighboring District Attorney Jason Hicks was assigned by the Attorney General’s Office to make charging decisions in the case, and Hicks filed the counts Wednesday.

The 55-year-old O’Brien has faced allegations since becoming Comanche County District 1’s commissioner since January 2023. The Elgin resident is a retired U.S. Army veteran who had lived in the county for more than a decade at the time of his election.

As alleged in the documents filed Wednesday (embedded below), between January and June 2023, O’Brien diverted funds meant for his county cell phone for personal use by making personal calls and sending personal text messages not authorized by the county. In criminal count two, O’Brien is accused of using a county vehicle to run errands — including travel to doctor appointments and trips to haul personal property — while using a county PikePass account.

O’Brien was also charged with committing a computer crime, which included claims he allegedly admitted to sending a female county employee of District 1 sexually explicit text messages that were annoying and harassing in nature. O’Brien was also charged with two counts of outraging the public decency for allegedly terminating two District 1 employees for cooperating with OSBI investigators.

Both the embezzlement counts are felonies punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The remaining counts are misdemeanors punishable by a $500 fine or up to a year in prison.

An attorney representing O’Brien, John Zelbst, was out of town and unavailable Thursday, according to a member of his office.

Cabelka asked O’Brien to resign

Comanche County District Attorney Kyle Cabelka speaks during a meeting of the District Attorneys Council on Thursday, March 14, 2024. (Tres Savage)

Cabelka said Thursday he asked O’Brien to step down from elected office, which has not happened.

“He’s chosen not to do so, and so depending on how things go, if I have to, I’ll start a removal action on him to have him removed from office,” Cabelka said.

Cabelka said that the nature of the charges against O’Brien means it would be best for him to step aside.

“I don’t think that anybody that’s charged with two counts of felony embezzlement should be in an elected position,” he said.

The five charges followed an investigation by OSBI and Comanche County District Attorney’s Office that began in July. In an unusual move during a county commissioner’s meeting in August, O’Brien wrote and attempted to reimburse the county with a check for $1,093.07, according to a report in The Southwest Ledger. After some discussion among commissioners, the issue was tabled. It’s unclear if the county ever accepted O’Brien’s check or what expenses the check was meant to cover.

Cabelka is also in the process of trying to remove suspended Cotton County Commissioner Micah Woods from office, an action that was recommended by the state’s multi-county grand jury. Woods is facing several criminal charges himself.

Woods is accused of making “repeated and inappropriate and unprofessional comments” to the county clerk, including threatening him with losing his job. He is also accused of harassing and stalking a female reserve deputy sheriff and county emergency management director. The harassment included Woods presenting an “anonymous” letter to the other county commissioners demanding that she be fired and accusing her of committing felonies. Additionally, Woods allegedly called her “that fucking bitch” to a fellow commissioner, threatened to hire someone to assault her and stalked her at her house.

An embezzlement count against Woods alleges that he misappropriated money meant to repair an office air conditioning unit. He is also accused of requiring county employees to assist in his campaign during working hours.

Cabelka said Woods’ removal trial is set to start in front of a jury April 1, with a criminal trial set to begin April 8.

Comanche County Jail has a recent history of problems

A potentially legally compromised county commissioner is not the only problem within the Comanche County government. The county’s jail has also come under scrutiny following the deaths of five detainees last year and one this year. Cabelka said he has filed charges against four detainees in connection with one of the deaths. He said another death has been deemed to be the result of natural causes. The OSBI is investigating two more.

The jail’s administrator also retired on March 1, leaving a subordinate to manage the jail’s day-to-day operations. As with Oklahoma County, the jail is overseen by a trust. In Comanche County’s case, however, the trust is made up of the three county commissioners, something Cabelka said may change.

“The trust is also being reworked to no longer have just the three county commissioners on the board,” Cabelka said.

There have been no allegations against jail staff in connection with the recent spate of deaths, he said. Still, Cabelka remains worried about what is happening inside the facility.

“Five deaths and now six deaths in roughly seven months is very concerning to me,” he said.

Oklahoma’s long history of county commissioner scandals

O’Brien’s indictment is the latest in a long history of county commissioners in Oklahoma being charged with crimes while in office.

In 2022, Kiowa County Commissioners Joe Don Dickey and Tim Binghom were indicted on embezzlement and conspiracy charges by a multi-county grand jury related to their creation of an asphalt emulsion plant. Those charges against both Binghom and Dickey were dismissed and refiled as misdemeanors in March 2023. Both men pleaded no contest and receiving a deferred prosecution agreement, and neither remains in office.

In the 1970s and 1980s, commissioners from 60 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties were charged after a lengthy federal investigation into kickbacks. Between 1977 and 1987, 246 county government officials, including commissioners, were charged by the federal government or state. More than 200 were convicted, according to a retrospective on the scandal by The Norman Transcript.

Read the John O’Brien criminal information and probable cause affidavit

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