Contractors and Oklahoma Turnpike Authority employees have asked a judge to protect them from testifying in an ongoing lawsuit against the agency for alleged Open Meeting Act violations.
OTA is proposing a $5 billion, 15-year long range expansion of the state’s toll road system, which includes new turnpikes through east Norman and along Indian Hills Road. More than 200 residents hired attorney Stan Ward in May and filed a lawsuit claiming the agency’s meeting agendas didn’t properly inform the public.
With nearly each motion to depose OTA employees, board members and contractors there are counter motions to stop them from testifying, court records showed.
“We have had a battle on every discovery issue,” Ward said during a Thursday interview with The Transcript. “They have been very, very reluctant to turn over any documents or produce witnesses.
“We’ve had to go to court just for basic discovery in a case. You don’t normally encounter that. There’s not a week that goes by that we don’t have two or three motions and that gets expensive.”
Ward’s co-counsel, Richard Labarthe, wondered why.
“What do they have to hide,” Labarthe said. “If they’ve got nothing to hide, then open the books and quit fighting every avenue of discovery.”
OTA contractor Poe & Associates was hired to perform design work on the turnpike plan. Legal counsel for the firm, along with public relations agency Jones PR and OTA spokeswoman Jessica Brown have asked a judge to deny Ward’s request to depose them.
OTA’s general counsel is representing Brown along with other employees tasked with the creation of agendas, Jenny Johnson and Todd Gore. Both those employees have also asked the court to bar their testimony, however, Judge Timothy Olsen ruled Sept. 28 their roles warranted questioning and allowed depositions to proceed.
Poe & Associates attorneys Matthew Felty and Morgan Lawson argued in a court motion that Ward’s request to depose their client exceeded the boundaries Olsen allowed for discovery and who could be deposed. They also argued that to depose their clients would breach the professional rules for the release of proprietary and confidential information.
Jones PR attorneys from McAfee & Taft similarly argued that the request exceeded the scope of allowable discovery, but added their clients did not have enough time to gather documents which imposed “an undue burden” on the public relations firm.
OTA’s Assistant General Counsel Jonathan Brewer claimed Brown was not properly served and it was “harassment” to depose her when Ward can otherwise obtain the information from OTA.
Court records showed Olsen will rule on those motions to depose Friday.
‘What do they have to hide?’
Ward’s request to depose these employees and contractors has arisen following an initial round of testimony, he explained to the court.
“To suggest that the Court entered an order barring those depositions before they were requested defies logic,” Ward stated in his response to the court.
Poe & Associates testimony is required to obtain information related to the “site selection and/or development of routes or extensions of the OTA turnpikes … and the so-called South Extension created … or considered at any time during 2021 and/or the months of January and February 2022,” his response read.
Ward subpoenaed the firm to also testify to the “timing as to when any such work first began and who was involved in any such activities,” his response read.
Brown was subpoenaed to discover the development of the agency’s ACCESS plan and the website, and communications with OTA directors and fellow employees, Gov. Kevin Stitt, and Poe & Associates, Ward wrote to the court.
Ward also indicated it was Brown who helped prepare the press release for the February meeting and was involved in the website name via a text message to OTA Deputy Director Joe Echelle.
OTA spokeswoman Brenda Perry Clark said the press release was sent after the meeting and the topics have nothing to do with the open meeting act case.
“All litigation must have reasonable boundaries established by the Court,” Clark said in an email to The Transcript. “Here, the Court set such boundaries and the proposed deposition of Ms. Brown and topics for inquiry fall outside of what the Court has previously ruled as appropriate.”
Poe & Associates provided Jones PR with route maps for ACCESS including the Norman turnpikes “which were then placed on the website,” Ward alleged.
He has requested the firm produce documents and communications related to the creation of the ACCESS website, from 2021 through February.
Ward wrote to the court that the defendants want to dispense with depositions because their testimony will “confirm the OTA’s violation of the Open Meeting Act to an even greater degree of certainty.”
Attorneys for Poe & Associates and Jones PR could not be reached at press time.