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Oklahoma workers' comp judge signs order in attorney's favor after being hired by attorney

A judge at Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Court issued a written ruling in an attorney's favor in a contested case after accepting a job from the attorney. Judge Kent Eldridge vacated the ruling after being shown an ethics rule.
by Nolan Clay and Robby Trammell Published: May 20, 2012
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©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 reappointed. He signed the order one day after the attorney hired him, records show.

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 attorney, John Colbert, at a restaurant that afternoon. “We sat down and we negotiated the employment,” he said.

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.

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by Nolan Clay
Sr. Reporter
Nolan Clay was born in Oklahoma and has worked as a reporter for The Oklahoman since 1985. He covered the Oklahoma City bombing trials and witnessed bomber Tim McVeigh's execution. His investigative reports have brought down public officials,...
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by Robby Trammell
Assistant Managing Editor
Robby Trammell is news director for The Oklahoman and NewsOK.com. During his 41-year career, he has received numerous reporting awards and civic honors. With The Oklahoman’s investigative team, he won a first-place spot news reporting award for...
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