MUSKOGEE — Men accused of murder, rape and child abuse are among several whose trials have been delayed because of allegations of eavesdropping at the district attorney's office.
No evidence has surfaced that District Attorney Larry Moore or his staff listened in on conversations between defense attorneys and their clients, but the potential for such activity before and after court hearings has roused the attention of Muskogee County's district judges and bar association.
Moore asked the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to look into the matter. He did not return telephone messages left at his office by The Oklahoman.
“I heard rumors that people are being listened to in courtrooms and in the courthouse, and there just got to be too many rumors,” District Judge Mike Norman said Thursday.
At issue is a surveillance system installed several years ago that feeds audio and video from the courtrooms to the sheriff's department. It also records and archives the data, and has been modified by the county several times since its initial installation.
Local defense attorneys learned in August the audio could be accessed by laptops on loan to the district attorney from the sheriff's office, said Martha Cherbini, president of the county bar association.
Cherbini said the investigation will clear up what so far has been “a lot of benign explanations for a lot of questions.”
“This has been going on for over a month now, so it's hard to know what's fact and what's fiction,” she said. “There's a lot of uncertainty about whether anything is illegal, unethical, or just wrong, and there's a process for figuring those things out.”
Stephen Lammers, a technician with Data Video Systems, said he installed the security system about six years ago. He said he objected to installing microphones in the courtroom, but ultimately both video and audio were installed with audio mute switches available to the judges.
Lammers said audio and video streams were sent to a digital video recorder at the sheriff's department. Sometime between installation and this month, the equipment was modified.
The software was transferred from the video digital recorder to laptops and the mute system was bypassed, he said.
“But I really don't think the sheriff would have done it because he honestly never messed with it; he's not real tech-savvy,” Lammers said. “I would suspect it was the IT guy.”
Matt Stagg, information technology director for the sheriff's department, declined to comment.
Testifying in Norman's courtroom this month, Stagg said he had supplied the district attorney's office with 10 DVDs of archived courtroom security files since the system was installed.
Sheriff Charles Pearson said the surveillance software was lumped with other computer programs, with each typically uploaded in unison to department computers. When the department agreed to share some of its reports and criminal databases with the district attorney's office, he said, the courtroom surveillance software and archives were inadvertently shared as well.
“We've gone paperless, and that's part of it,” Pearson said. “There's about four or five different programs, and that way they don't have to come down and ask us for them — they can access it themselves.”
The laptops have been returned to the sheriff's department, he said.
State and federal law prohibit the intentional recording of a person's oral or electronic communications without his knowledge. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been asked to assist state investigators in Muskogee County.
Jimmy Bunn, chief legal counsel for the OSBI, said investigators will look at whether parties were taped and whether they were aware they were taped.
“The question becomes, is the sheriff … authorized to use a security system that records and captures oral communication unknowingly between the parties,” Bunn said.
He compared the case to one regarding the taping of jailhouse phone systems: “If there's a conspicuous sign indicating the phone calls are being monitored by Department of Corrections and the prisoner still uses that phone with that notice, then they have given consent,” he said.
Cherbini said the county bar association was notified of the surveillance system when it was installed.
Similar systems provide security at courthouses across the state, but most are video-only. Kiowa County Sheriff Russ Tate said he decided against audio when installing a surveillance system in Hobart because it was more expensive and he was concerned it could violate wiretapping laws.
Gina Hendryx, general counsel for the Oklahoma Bar Association, said the association is looking into whether any attorney rules of conduct were violated.