Broken Arrow: ‘Exit interview’ tapes reveals nervous lawyer, tense process

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 20-Sep-2010

The saga of a controversial Oklahoma law firm and its involvement with the Broken Arrow public schools continued to unfold today (Monday, September 20), with release of audiotapes of August 18 “exit interviews.” Those sessions were supposed to serve as prelude to release of an audit of the school system by the office of Auditor & Inspector Steve Burrage.

Instead of the scheduled release, however, Burrage early this month spiked the audit shortly before reporters and other public officials expected to get it in hand. 

The audit originated in a request from former district Superintendent Jim Sisney, who had identified possible bid-splitting and other issues involving the district and Air Assurance, a local heating and air conditioning firm. The board of education dismissed Sisney, then truncated his audit request.

The narrower audit proceeded and was apparently completed in spring 2010, perhaps earlier. A draft of the audit circulated in recent weeks, and was even posted at the website of the Broken Arrow Ledger, the local newspaper. Burrage ordered a still more focused draft of the audit, the one he withdrew early this month.

Reporting today for Oklahoma Watchdog, Andrew W. Griffin captures highlights from roughly eight hours of audiotapes made available to news organizations last night and this morning, including CapitolBeatOK.

The tapes document the accuracy of reports CapitolBeatOK received on August 19, indicating stormy sessions the day before among school board members, attorney Doug Mann of the Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold law firm, the auditor and his staff.

According to Griffin’s summary: “After saying that BAPS [Broken Arrow public schools] is being accused of making ‘fake and mock bids’ and warning that this whole situation will ‘explode’ [Mann]  murmurs that ‘G-D lie(s)’ are being included in the audit, particularly during a discussion on the alleged shredding of documents.

“Later, Mann gets defensive about his $250 an hour rate being noted in the audit, noting that it is not necessary to include that information. Mann continues, noting the report on a mysterious fire that took place in a mini-storage unit that contained BAPS documents. ‘Somebody set it on fire and it doesn’t take much of a jump to see that the insinuation is that it’s the Air Assurance people.’”

As reported by CapitolBeatOK, school board member Terry Stover had objected to presence of the Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold law firm, believing they were one source of the district’s problems.

When Burrage withdrew the audit three weeks ago, Stover resigned from the board of education in protest, followed soon thereafter by the troubled district’s public information officer. Burrage said he was withholding the audit because the independence of the process within his office had been compromised.

The audit process has led to a series of verbal jousts between Auditor Burrage and state Rep. Mike Reynolds over the last 18 months.  When Reynolds met with reporters on August 12 to detail his criticism of the audit process, Burrage, a Democrat, attended and took umbrage. He criticized Reynolds, an Oklahoma City Republican, to his face, then stormed out of the press conference.

After Burrage’s departure that day, Reynolds repeated he was concerned that the audit would leave out information about alleged problems in the school district, including bid splitting, billings for legal work, shredding of documents, revisions to school board minutes and other issues raised by citizen-watchdogs in the troubled school district. Reynolds has also said legislators wanted to know if retiring teachers were illegally being paid for unused sick leave.

In the words of Griffin’s summary of the August 18 tapes, “The exit interview was held so the auditors, including Burrage and his staff of Ricky Branch, Sherri Combs and Michelle Day could address the board and Supt. Jarod Mendenhall. Others are heard on the tape, particularly Mann, who can be heard swearing several times and addressing auditors in what can be construed as a confrontational way.

“ ‘Our client in this “investigative” audit is the Broken Arrow public schools and the Broken Arrow public school board,’ Burrage says on the tape.

“Interestingly, Mann goes on about his relationship with Mike Burrage, Steve Burrage’s brother who was a U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Oklahoma between 1996 and 2001.

“Mendenhall explains off the bat that he wanted attorneys from Rosenstein Fist & Ringold, who represents BAPS, on hand. Burrage then begins the meeting noting that Rep. Mike Reynolds (R-Oklahoma City) has been staying on him for the course of the audit, which has been underway since 2009.

“Mann clearly has negative feelings towards Reynolds as well, as he chimes in, ‘We have a common belief as to Mr. Reynolds.’ Burrage had also noted that Reynolds had given him ‘hell’ for the delayed release of the audit.”

According to Griffin’s transcription, Burrage said, “Comments made that it took two years, that’s not true.” He said,  “We go through very thorough review processes.”

Concerning Reynolds’ frequent criticisms of his work, Burrage said “He’ll still be critical of me after this audit.”

The audit cost $47,000 to complete, but was not released. Presently, the auditor’s office is conducting a new criminal investigative audit at the request of Attorney General Drew Edmondson.

The story unfolding in Broken Arrow covers a period of more than 10 years, with – to use a layman’s term for complicated machinery – lots of moving parts. Thousands of pages of transcripts and hundreds of individual exhibits are the basis for conclusions that the breadth of the scandal had, until recent weeks, hardly been hinted at in most news coverage.