NORMAN — Cleveland County Sheriff Joe Lester announced his retirement Monday and dismissed his lawsuit against the county commissioners.
“This letter is to inform you that, effective immediately, I am retiring from public service and as the sheriff of Cleveland County,” Lester wrote in a letter to commissioners.
The trial date for the civil suit between Lester and other county officials was set to begin Wednesday, but depositions set for Monday and today were canceled, county commissioners said.
“I got a texted and emailed letter where Joe is resigning immediately with his signature, and our attorneys were contacted by his attorney saying that he is dismissing the lawsuit,” County Commissioner Darry Stacy said.
Stacy said Undersheriff Rhett Burnett became active sheriff by default upon Lester’s retirement.
The commissioners gathered for an emergency meeting Monday night and went into a closed-door executive session with attorneys to discuss what to do during the interim between Lester’s retirement and a special election to fill the post.
Commissioners Rod Cleveland, Harold Haralson and Stacy were present, along with Assistant District Attorneys Heather Darby, Carol Dillingham and Jim Robertson. The three ADAs specialize in civil law and serve as legal counsel to elected county officials as needed.
Commissioners did not appoint anyone in Lester’s stead at this point, so Burnett remains in charge for the time being, but applications for the interim appointment will be taken starting today through Friday.
Applicants must meet the qualifications as specified with Title 19-510 of state statutes.
“We regret that the situation has come to this,” Commissioner Darry Stacy said. “Cleveland County has a bright future, and we are committed to working with the fine men and women in the Cleveland County Sheriff’s office to ensure a smooth transition.”
Depending on the number of applications, commissioners may narrow that down and interview the most qualified candidates the following week, Stacy said.
Commissioners will ask the governor to set a special election, but that will likely coincide with the November 2018 general election with filing in April.
Lester has given no reason for his notice of immediate retirement.
Lester filed the civil suit against the Board of County Commissioners on March 23, alleging that commissioners were not adequately funding the jail as required by state law.
He later added the Cleveland County Budget Board, of which he is a member, to the suit.
The retirement and lawsuit dismissal come on the heels of an operations audit by the State Auditors and Inspectors Office released last month.
The audit identified possible mismanagement, over-expenditure of public funds, noncompliance with state law and multiple findings of “Inadequate Internal Controls” in a variety of areas.
Additionally, the audit found 48 vehicles — representing a $993,829 investment of public dollars — were in use without insurance coverage, and 37 vehicles that had been disposed by the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office were still insured because the fleet inventory had not been kept current.
Other issues included inmate head counts, overpayment for inmate medical services, un-billed revenue from housing Department of Corrections inmates and community sentencing, un-budgeted payments of Compensatory Time, delayed transfer of commissary funds and inaccuracies of the Inmate Trust Fund checking account balance.
Lester won the position in 2008. Perhaps his most hotly contested race was the Republican primary in 2008, which included six contenders. Lester and Mark Hamm garnered 5,236 and 5,130 votes, respectively, forcing a runoff.
Lester defeated Hamm 4,405 votes to 3,473 in August, then went on to win big over Democrat Rick Adkins 60,587 votes to 39,855 in November 2008.
“I reached out to all of the county commissioners and asked them to please consider appointing somebody who would pledge not to run for sheriff,” Hamm said Monday. “Much like when Sheriff [F. DeWayne] Beggs resigned, the commissioners appointed Don Holyfield because he pledged not to run for office. He wanted all of the candidates to have a fair shot.”
A native Oklahoman, Lester came to Norman in 1991 as police chief and director of public safety at the University of Oklahoma. He served in that position until 2003.
Prior to joining the OU staff, Lester was a Tulsa police officer for more than 20 years, the last few years as night-shift watch commander, where he supervised 235 employees.
In 2003, he was made vice president of Bridges International Development and began working economic development in the Congo in Africa.
In 2004, he began working with Homeland Security through the T and J Group, serving there until 2008 when he was elected Cleveland County sheriff.
The Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association recently named Lester as 2017 Sheriff of the Year.
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