Challenging for District Attorney: Interview with Brett Swab

By David Arnett, Publisher    
Tuesday, 18 July 2006
The district attorney stands as the top law enforcement agent in Tulsa County, but police on the street believe current District Attorney Tim Harris has betrayed them.  Challenging for the office, former prosecutor Brett Swab has been endorsed by every fraternal lodge as a result of membership votes.  Swab and the officers on the line claim Harris has changed the standard for cases to be filed from “probable cause” to “without a reasonable doubt.”  Police say Tulsa County crime is skyrocketing as a result, but Harris says he hasn’t changed the standard.  There may be no more important issue for all Tulsans to consider as next Tuesday July 25 the race will be decided between these two Republican candidates.

Tulsa Today:   How have the debates been going between the two of you to date?

Brett Swab:   I feel good about them.  We’re basically arguing on two points. As far as the “probable cause” issue, Tim Harris claims he hasn’t changed it, but every officer on the street says he has, and former D.A.s – including Chuck Richardson and Bill LaFortune – say he has.

During the debates, Harris wants to bring up that I don’t have as much experience as some of his prosecutors, but I have pointed out that his prosecutors – the chief of staff, the chief of criminal and the first assistant – average about one case per year per person.  In fact, the chief of staff has only tried one case since he’s been there – more than seven years.  Those three individuals make 90 percent of the salaries – that’s a quarter of a million dollars.  They do the same job I did as a first assistant, or Tom Dillard did for David Moss as a first assistant – and I did it for $75,000 a year.  So my message to the taxpayers is that I’m going to take the money he’s wasting and hire some experienced people, get some prosecutors in there, and make these people try cases.  I spent five years in that position and I averaged seven or eight cases a year.  That’s production you want, not a one-case-a-year guy.

Tulsa Today:   Harris dismisses you as a criminal defense attorney, seeming to ignore your time in the D.A.’s office.  Is this a sign of desperation on his part?

Brett Swab:   I would have to say it is, for two reasons.  First, under the Constitution, he should know better.  Everybody’s entitled to a defense – to suggest that someone should go before a court without representation ignores the very fundamentals of our system.  Competent counsel balances out that system and makes it more productive.

The second reason is that my experience as a general practice attorney – and as such, I do handle some criminal defense work – has made me a better lawyer, and it has certainly made me a better prosecutor, because I understand what criminal defense attorneys do.  Before I left the D.A.’s office, I was quite naïve – and frankly, Harris is quite naïve – to the fact that there is another side, and that there is a certain decorum and professionalism.  He doesn’t understand their thinking as criminal defense attorneys, but I think my experience will make me a more rounded prosecutor; it will help me better understand the other side, and it will hopefully make me more efficient in doing my job.  To me, it rounds you out as an attorney to have defense experience if you’re going to be a prosecutor, and I don’t understand his implication that there’s something negative about having that experience.

In our debates, he says he has 20 years experience and that his people have more experience than I do – he’s counting experience as the number of years you’ve been in office.  My simple statement to that is that it’s not how long you’ve been in a position – it’s what you did while you were there.  I was there almost five years, and in that time frame – and you can’t argue with this – I tried five death penalty cases.  I have four death penalty convictions, and I’ve handed down more than 36,000 conviction years through juries in 31 trials.

Therefore, I would ask the voters to consider his record for a four-year period – or even his 20-year period, for that matter – he simply cannot match my number of conviction years given by juries.  In the five years I was there, my record stands alone – and to say that he’s more effective because he has been there longer, or he’s got people around him that have been there longer – even though they aren’t really doing anything – ignores the productivity I would bring to the office.

Tulsa Today:   As a candidate, what is the standard by which we should judge a district attorney?

Brett Swab:   I believe that when people think about a D.A. in Tulsa, they think of David Moss or Buddy Fallis.  The reason they think of those two people is simple – they had integrity and they stood for something.  The district attorney’s office needs to stand for something, and that is this: it needs to administer justice, and it needs to be fair.  I would certainly be more concerned about the safety in my community than my conviction record.  I would much rather take a case, where I have a good faith belief that the person accused has committed a crime, to trial and lose than to drag it out and not file it because I was afraid I would hurt my numbers.  And if you look at this district attorney’s record, while he’s touting a nine-out-of-ten ratio, he’s not telling the public the whole truth when he claims it’s a deterrent.  Who is it deterring?  It’s certainly not deterring the criminals – our crime rate is at an all-time high.  Our filings are down.

The D.A. is actually the top law enforcement agent in the county – he’s above the police, he’s above everyone except the federal jurisdiction.  As I’ve always said, as the D.A.’s office goes, so goes everything else.  The D.A. needs to work hand in hand with the police.  He needs to utilize the docket system that the courts have effectively put into place.  He needs to be the person who sets the tone for how this county is going to tolerate crime – and he needs to send a specific message to the people who want to come here and commit crimes.  And that has not been happening.

Tulsa Today:   You’re saying that the assertions made by our District Attorney, Tim Harris, are factually in error?

Brett Swab:   They’re factually unsubstantiated and they’re incorrect.  Basically, the numbers he’s quoting – nine out of 10 cases being filed – include traffic tickets and misdemeanors.  His Web site, as late as last week, had a chart of the number of charges that were presented for filing – whether or not they were actually filed.  In one instance, he quotes that around 16,500 cases were presented in 2001.  Of those charges that were presented, roughly 15,500 were approved – and there are 1,000 that weren’t.  That’s where he’s coming up with the 90 percent.  But I’m not talking about misdemeanors and traffic tickets.  That particular year, of the 15,500 that he says were approved, we know that 7,444 felonies were filed – that’s of record.  If you do the math, there are some 8,000 cases left.  His chart does include a footnote that says that these numbers include misdemeanors – traffic tickets, public drunks, tickets people are going to plead guilty to.  But I’m talking about felonies.  The number of felonies has declined, on average, by 1,000 to 2,000 per year – and they’ve been declining ever since 2002, when he implemented the policy changing the standard from “probable cause” to “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  So for him to say that he approves nine out of every10 charges, since he’s including traffic tickets and misdemeanors, is probably accurate.  But I’m not talking about traffic tickets and misdemeanors – I’m talking about felony prosecutions, and those are down by 27 percent this year.  Case in point: if he filed 7,444 in 2001, this year he’s filing 5,400 – that’s 2,000 less cases, 2,000 less people being prosecuted.  And that’s been happening for quite some time.

Also, the database he uses to make these numbers up cannot be accessed by law enforcement or anyone other than someone in the D.A.’s office.  I know that for a fact because representatives from the police department and the sheriff’s department have told me that as of six weeks ago – coincidentally, at the time I was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police – they were systematically locked out of the D.A.’s database.  For me, that begs the question, why would someone who says he has a good relationship with law enforcement and who claims to want to work with law enforcement now want law enforcement off a database that they had prior access to?  It’s a good question – and one Tim Harris won’t answer.  I brought it up in a debate recently, and he simply sidestepped it.

Tulsa Today:   To summarize, what is your primary message to the voters?

Brett Swab:   If the voters don’t want crime to continue to go up and to double and triple our categories for violent crimes – that’s in comparison to the national average – if they want someone who will work with law enforcement to make the system more efficient and who’ll send the message, by trying cases and standing up for the citizens, that our community needs to be safe, then they need to elect me.  I’m going to stand up for this office.  I’m going to do the job, and I’m not going to make excuses or blame it on money or experience.  I’m going to go get the people I need and do the job, because that‘s what needs to be done.

Editor’s Note:  This Friday the two candidates will debate at the Republican Men’s Club luncheon at the Radisson Hotel Tulsa, 10918 East 41st St (just east of Hwy 169)and again at the Downtown Kiwanis Club luncheon at the First United Methodist Church 1115 South Boulder Monday the day before the election.  The Monday debate will be carried live by KRMG radio.

Tulsa Today has requested an interview with District Attorney Tim Harris, but the last scheduled interview appointment was cancelled abruptly within the hour it was to occur.  Tulsa Today will post results of any such interview prior to the election if it happens.

For more information on Brett Swab click here.
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 19 July 2006 )