Tulsa prosecutor faces bar association hearing over allegations of staff members practicing law without licenses
March 11, 2020
A Tulsa County prosecutor will undergo a professional tribunal this week that could determine her discipline over allegations that staff members under her supervision practiced law on the agency’s behalf more than 150 times without proper licensing.
The Oklahoma Bar Association called for Assistant District Attorney Tara Jack to face sanctions related to the OBA’s discovery that five employees represented the state in misdemeanor cases without being sworn to practice law in Oklahoma.
A three-member panel will begin hearing the Oklahoma Bar Association’s complaint against Jack Wednesday morning at the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Tulsa.
But in a stipulation filed Friday, Jack conceded she “failed to adequately supervise” Christopher “Max” Deane, Johnnie James, Michael Shouse, Kelly Sweeney and Randall Young and failed to ensure their activities complied with legal rules.
Jack additionally admitted she continued to assign Sweeney some responsibility over the misdemeanor domestic violence docket even after learning Sweeney failed the Oklahoma Bar Exam in July 2018.
The OBA’s general counsel, Gina Hendryx, called the behavior “prejudicial to the administration of justice in Tulsa County” in a complaint made public Feb. 13.
But in her initial response to the OBA, Jack said part of being a supervisor and employee in a large office means she has to “impute certain knowledge to individuals.” She also contended she told prosecutors, as well as licensed and unlicensed interns, they cannot speak on record, sign paperwork or make announcements in court unless they are properly licensed.
“I assumed that the interns knew what they could and couldn’t do,” Jack wrote. “This was obviously a misunderstanding on my part.” She said interns are now required to wear color-coded badges that identify whether they are a licensed legal intern.
Each of the five employees joined the office between fall 2017 and summer 2018 after taking the bar exam but before Jack knew their results. None were licensed legal interns at the time.
As of Aug. 28, 2019, Jack is a member of the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office gang prosecution unit. The allegations, which are in publicly available documents, were first reported Feb. 18 by The Frontier, a Tulsa-based online journalism outlet.
District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler issued a statement last month saying the behavior was “unacceptable” but believed program changes, including the color-coded badges, will prevent it from recurring.
Jack said in one filing that summer and fall 2018 — the time of Kunzweiler’s re-election campaign — saw a “tremendous amount of turnover” in her office. As a result, she said she had to train prosecutors assigned to preliminary hearing courts in addition to supervising misdemeanor attorneys and traffic court but that the increased workload “in no way” excused what happened.
The complaint alleges Sweeney alone made appearances in more than 70 misdemeanor cases, while Young and James were on record in 21. Deane and Shouse appeared in court minutes for at least 17 and 27 misdemeanor proceedings, respectively.
In court documents, Jack said First Assistant District Attorney Erik Grayless supervises the intern program and assigns them to divisions, which is how she came to supervise the five employees. She said she has since created a handbook for interns and new assistant prosecutors that outlines what they are legally allowed to do.
Grayless, in a February 2019 letter, reported the agency hired Shouse and Young on the condition that they pass the bar. He said they believed they hadn’t violated any professional rules because they received docket assignments from Jack after passing their exams.
”I relied on (Grayless) and the interns to know what they could or could not do,” Jack wrote of the situation. “I did not receive a copy of the (employees’) paperwork and neither did I ask for a copy, which was my careless mistake.”
In November 2018, Special Judge April Seibert notified Jack that she learned Sweeney was not properly licensed while speaking with Sweeney about a defense attorney’s intent to reveal in court that Sweeney failed her exam. Seibert also told Jack the same defense attorney revealed the OBA was investigating Sweeney and Young for practicing law without a license because they took part in trials.
“As soon as Judge (Seibert) told me this information, I was mortified and sickened that this had occurred,” Jack wrote in February. “I told (Sweeney) she needed to run everything she did by me from this point on because I could not trust her.”
However, Jack admitted in the Friday stipulation that she watched Sweeney conduct a portion of juror examination in a November 2018 trial. The OBA’s complaint alleges Sweeney gave the prosecution’s opening statement, questioned a witness and presented a closing argument during that trial. Court minutes state only two witnesses testified and jurors acquitted the defendant.
Sweeney passed the February 2019 exam, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court granted her admission to the bar Sept. 9. The Tulsa World last week observed her question a witness in Christopher Barnett’s felony jury trial as part of a team with Kunzweiler and Assistant District Attorney Mark Collier.
Jack also admitted she knew James had a law license in North Carolina but not in Oklahoma at the time she gave him team assignments in September 2017 that gave him the ability to argue motions and negotiate plea deals. Deane and Shouse carried out similar roles even though she knew they did not have legal intern licenses due to her being present during job interviews for them, Sweeney and Young, Jack said.
Court records show the Oklahoma Supreme Court granted James a temporary license in November 2017 that remained in effect until he passed his February 2018 exam and was admitted to the bar.
James has since left the agency and is now a defense attorney, according to court minutes entered Tuesday in a pending murder case. Shouse and Young now work in the district attorney’s civil division, while Deane is in private practice.