©Copyright 2012, The Oklahoman
A workers' compensation court judge apparently violated a state ethics rule when he issued a written decision in favor of an attorney he plans to go work for after leaving the bench, The Oklahoman learned.
Judge Kent Eldridge, 63, was looking for a job because he was not re
The judge later threw out the order in the contested case after questions were raised.
The judge said, “I determined that that ruling needed to be vacated, and I immediately did it.”
The courthouse controversy has left an injured Oklahoma City transport company employee angry and still without medical help for his hurt knee.
“I'm pretty ticked off about this,” Olen Harvey said.
Harvey, 63, now must have a second trial before another judge to see whether he can get medical treatment from his employer's insurance company.
“I feel like my attorney stabbed me in the back,” Harvey said.
“The attorney should have known that if he was to hire him there's going to be a conflict of interest there,” Harvey said. The attorney “could have waited after everything was taken care of.”
The judge confirmed he had a trial in the contested case the morning of May 2 and then met with the
The next day, the judge signed the order authorizing medical treatment for Harvey, records show.
The judge vacated the order May 7 after comp court administrator Michael Clingman showed him an Ethics Commission prohibition.
In an interview, Eldridge insisted he already had made his decision on the contested case before leaving the courthouse to meet with Colbert.
“I didn't do anything wrong,” the judge told The Oklahoman.
“I tried cases with any number of lawyers. I made decisions based on the evidence ... and then I sat down one day, negotiated employment with ... a lawyer and ... and then I didn't hear any more of his cases and then I took corrective action on the cases that could fall within the rule.”
Eldridge has been a comp court judge for almost six years. He said he will go to work with Colbert on June 1.
The circumstances have caused a stir at the workers' compensation courthouse.
Colbert ignored a reporter who tried to get his attention last week at the courthouse. Colbert, who has law offices in Ardmore, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, also did not return a phone call or respond to an email.
“We'll fight for the compensation you deserve,” his website states. “Get Colbert and Get It Done!”
The judge did not announce any decision during the trial. Harvey said he was never told how the judge ruled and did not know that the judge later vacated the decision.
“I wonder why John Colbert didn't tell me about this. Now I see why his assistant said, ‘The paperwork was lost,'
Eldridge has to leave the bench because Gov. Mary Fallin chose not to re
Clingman provided The Oklahoman with the Ethics Commission rule he gave to the judge.
The rule prohibits a state officer from taking any official action affecting someone if the officer is negotiating with that person for employment. The rule requires the officer to promptly disqualify himself from matters if he is in negotiations for a job.
Clingman said, “These guys have oaths of office. That's their boss, not me.”
The judge would not directly answer several questions about whether he and Colbert ever discussed a job before May 2.
“The key, the question you should be asking is: When did I negotiate the employment. Is that your question? Because that's what the rule contemplates. And, so, we negotiated the employment after I heard cases on the 2nd,” he said.
“It was generally known I was available for employment.”
Pressed for an answer, he responded, “I made several lawyers out here know that I was interested in remaining in the system as a lawyer and utilizing my trial skills.”
Another Ethics Commission rule prohibits a state officer from accepting or soliciting other employment “which would impair his ... independence of judgment in the performance of his ... public duties.”
Asked if he could have done anything differently, he said, “No. I tried a case; I decided it.
“The only thing I could have done differently to change the outcome is to hand the order to the order clerk and have it prepared and signed before I met with him (Colbert) but, frankly, that would have looked suspicious,” the judge said. “And so, no, I didn't do that because that would have been out of my normal manner of doing things.”
In all, the judge said, his acceptance of a job affected four cases. In two of those cases, Eldridge had approved agreements but not yet signed orders. Another judge now will have to reconsider those agreements.
The judge said he
Eldridge now has