major stories, national headlines, weekend roundup
Clockwise from top left: Enid City Commissioner Judd Blevins, outgoing Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Sean McDaniel, Oklahoma's medical marijuana industry and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters were all highlighted in long-form news stories in early March 2023. (NonDoc)

With another deadline having passed at the Oklahoma State Capitol and a certain senator deciding to filibuster in protest of his bills not getting heard, you may have missed some important news over the last week.

As you kick back to enjoy the weekend, check out this roundup of four important stories that recently made major headlines.

OSDE resignations, contract registration highlight internal issues

Oklahoma education roundup, Ryan Walters, Phil Koons, Katherine Curry
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters addresses the State Board of Education next to Oklahoma Department of Education general counsel Bryan Cleveland during a meeting Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

Drama among Oklahoma State Department of Education personnel has spilled into public view again over the last two weeks with reports of top-level resignations and a possible rigged contract to keep State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters in the national news.

First, Murray Evans of The Oklahoman reported March 7 that OSDE’s general counsel, Bryan Cleveland, and the agency’s executive director of accreditation, Ryan Pieper, are leaving their positions.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Cleveland is a Harvard Law graduate who had spent more than three years in the Attorney General’s Office before switching to OSDE in January 2023, the same month Walters took office.

Cleveland is still listed as the department’s general counsel on the OSDE website and on his LinkedIn page.

During his time with the department, Cleveland has remained busy filing briefs on behalf of the department and Walters in numerous court cases naming them as defendants. Although the state board hired its own attorney, Cara Nicklas, in October, Cleveland has also filed briefs on behalf of board members at times.

Walters is named as a defendant or respondent in at least 10 court cases.

Pieper had been a longtime employee of the department in its accreditation office. Both men frequently appeared at State Board of Education meetings to advise the board on legal and accreditation matters.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Palmer of Oklahoma Watch and Wendy Suares of Fox 25 reported this week that OSDE employee David Martin used the department’s address when registering a limited-liability company for Vought Strategies, a national media and PR firm.

According to emails obtained by Oklahoma Watch and Fox 25, the firm has been sending email pitches to news organizations across the country to promote Walters since at least August. While it is unclear when exactly OSDE first entered into a contract with Vought for its services, the two entities signed an extension March 6 for $30,000 through the end of June.

According to the reports, Vought appeared to be the only bidder for the contract, and Martin registered the LLC for the firm in Oklahoma on the last day bids were accepted. On Thursday, Fox 25 tweeted that Martin resigned after the story came out, but OSDE said his resignation was not connected to the story.

On Friday, Gov. Kevin Stitt was asked about the news reports. He said the OSDE is under Walters’ management and not his, although he suggested Oklahoma would be better off if its governor controlled agencies currently run by other statewide elected officials.

“It’s a fair point to ask questions,” Stitt said. “Every agency that hires PR firms and those kinds of things, it’s an honest question: Is that a good use of taxpayer dollars?”

Stitt said he has not spoken with his appointees to the State Board of Education regarding employee departures at OSDE.

Read both reports on Oklahoma Watch and KOKH Fox 25 to learn more.

Emails affirm disconnect between McDaniel, OKCPS board

OKCPS bond
Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Sean McDaniel and OKCPS Board Chairwoman Paula Lewis answer questions about a proposed bond issue on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. (Bennett Brinkman)

The tension between Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Sean McDaniel and the district’s board members that eventually lead to his resignation brewed for months, according to reporting from Murray Evans of The Oklahoman.

Emails obtained by Evans show that OKCPS Board President Paula Lewis and Vice President Lori Bowman expressed disagreements with McDaniel over the district’s relationship with charter schools and the implementation of a bond proposal approved by voters in November 2022.

“It is my belief that the board wants to be in alignment with you. It is also my belief that this board will not value alignment over their responsibility to their communities,” Lewis wrote in one email about bond disagreements.

According to The Oklahoman, those disagreements concerned plans for the historic Capitol Hill High School building, which is proposed to be replaced, and the superintendent’s role in contract negotiations for other projects.

Board members also seemed to have disagreements with McDaniel regarding the district’s relationship with the current charter schools it sponsors and to which it leases buildings. Tensions also simmered between McDaniel and board members regarding potential new charter schools considered late in 2023, with McDaniel emphasizing a desire to display alignment between his administration and the board, even as it became clear disagreements existed.

McDaniel appeared to express frustration when board members emailed him about requests from charter school tenants in buildings OKCPS owns.

“One of the challenges of problem-solving at the board level — in this instance meaning amongst and between board members from OKCPS and our charter school board members — is that on occasion it creates confusion,” McDaniel wrote. “It particularly creates confusion for OKCPS staff members assigned to conduct business with staff members from charter schools.”

McDaniel elaborated in another email.

“I apologize when I come across as frustrated either in person, on the phone or in an email,” he said. “We spend so much time on 2,500 kids who do not belong to us. Time that could be spent on the 33,000.”

Check out the full story from The Oklahoman to read more emails.

Kingfisher marijuana farm murders highlight mafia concerns

Oklahoma’s lax medical marijuana laws have led to international involvement in the local industry. (Ben White)

Clifton Adcock of The Frontier and a slate of ProPublica reporters teamed up to tell the harrowing and violent story of Chinese organized crime in Oklahoma’s medical marijuana industry. The state’s ongoing problems with black-market marijuana and illegal grow operations have tapped out utility resources, scared a lot of people and caused a series of criminal indictments.

The story of Chen Wu, who murdered four people at a grow operation in Kingfisher County in late 2022, provides readers with a look at how such operations work and what dangers lie within them for someChinese immigrants who work there. Wu was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole in February.

For anyone who has ever doubted the reach of organized crime in Oklahoma, one of the story’s more chilling sections comes when two Kingfisher County Sheriff’s Office deputies take a road trip to Miami, Florida, to pick up Wu after he left the state in the wake of the murders. Wu was arrested in Florida 48 hours after his car’s license plates were detected by a plate reader. (A bill to implement an automated plate-reading system in Oklahoma failed this week in the State Senate.)

After the long drive from Oklahoma, the two deputies checked into a motel near the Miami International Airport, parking their marked Chevy Tahoe outside their room. But as they waited to pick up Wu, the deputies decided not to stay there that night. Shortly after their arrival, one noticed a car pull up next to their Tahoe. Within minutes, a second car arrived, and then a third. The cars drove around the motel complex.

The deputies immediately checked out, went to the jail, and picked up Wu and began their trip back to Oklahoma sooner than expected. And when they were on the open highway headed home, the three cars from the motel reappeared and shadowed the deputies and Wu for miles, deputy Lt. Ken Thompson told The Frontier.

“It’s just a feeling, a gut feeling that you get, and the fact that they all just kind of just paced right around us,” he said. “I mean, they flew right up on us, but then they just locked down to our speed. So it was a weird deal.”

While Wu’s story is just part of the bigger picture when it comes to black-market marijuana and Chinese organized crime in the state, the story gives readers a broad look at how Oklahoma’s black market came to be and how those who choose to exploit it go about their business, including buying up large amounts of farmland for more than it’s worth and purchasing suburban homes to set up grows.

Read the full the story from The Frontier and ProPublica.

Enid politician’s ties to Identity Evropa draw national attention

The April 2 recall election of Enid City Commissioner Judd Blevins made national headlines this week. Blevins was first elected to the Enid City Commission on Feb.14, 2023, when he defeated incumbent Commissioner Jerry Allen. During his election campaign, the Enid News and Eagle published an article linking Blevins with the white nationalist organization called Identity Evropa.

The allegations stem from a March 2019 investigation by Right Wing Watch that identified Blevins as Identity Evropa’s state coordinator for Oklahoma and as a participant in the 2017 Unite the Right Rally who used the pseudonym “Conway – OK” in the group’s Discord server. The group’s communications had been leaked by the outlet Unicorn Riot earlier that month.

“Conway” led the Oklahoma chapter in a campaign of banner drops and flyering of public places in Oklahoma. According to Conway’s chat logs, he was involved in coordinating more than 40 instances of putting up racist posters or stickers across the state, including at a dozen college campuses. The campaign lasted from November 2017 until March 2019 when the Discord communications were leaked.

In one of his last posts, Conway reflected on the likelihood he would be identified.

“I’m certainly not dox-resistant, there are many business relationships that I now have to build in order to weather the storm of being doxxed should that ever happen to me,” Conway mused. “I may fail. But I decided to give up living a content life when I took the redpill. Striving for greatness is part of our history and it will define where we as a race and as a nation go in the future.”

Since Conway made that post, Blevins has made powerful allies in Enid, including conservative preacher Wade Burleson, a vocal defender of Blevins in the community.

Nonetheless, others in Enid have pushed an effort to recall Blevins from office, as detailed in NBC’s coverage of the upcoming election:

A white nationalist campaigning for office is one thing; his election is another. And Blevins’ win didn’t sit well with many in Enid. It marked the beginning of a fight to expel Blevins from the City Council — a fight for the very soul of Enid that would unite a coalition of its most progressive residents, divide its conservatives and show the power of community organizing.

Read about the election and Judd Blevins’ alleged ties on NBC and HuffPost.