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

“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,'” Harvey said.

Eldridge has to leave the bench because Gov. Mary Fallin chose not to reappoint him and three other comp judges. He wrote Fallin in a May 7 letter that he will leave early — at the end of this month.

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 stopped hearing cases the last time he had negotiations with a lawyer about a job. He said, “Once those negotiations were over and a sufficient time passed, I heard his cases again.”

Eldridge now has stopped hearing any cases which is a normal practice for comp judges in their final weeks.

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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