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Several central Oklahoma sheriff candidates have filed for bankruptcy, records show

Several central Oklahoma sheriff candidates — both incumbents and challengers — have filed for bankruptcy in the past, public records show. Among the group are three current sheriffs, including the top lawman in Oklahoma's largest county.
by Andrew Knittle Published: October 22, 2012

Several central Oklahoma sheriff candidates — both incumbents and challengers — have filed for bankruptcy protection in the past, public records show.

The jurisdictions include Oklahoma, Cleveland, Logan, Lincoln, Grady and McClain counties, all part of the Oklahoma City metropolitan area.

Among the group are three current sheriffs, including Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel.

In Lincoln and Logan counties, both the incumbent and the challenger have sought protection from creditors in federal court. Canadian County is the only one in the metro area where neither of the candidates has filed for bankruptcy.

Annual budgets for sheriff's departments, even in smaller counties, typically run well into the millions.

Canadian County Sheriff Randall Edwards, who is facing a former subordinate in next month's election, said being financially responsible is essential for a sheriff.

As elected officials, sheriffs are responsible for managing the finances and personnel of what is typically a county's largest agency — by far.

“Money is always an issue,” Edwards said. “You've got to work with the resources you have, just like with your personal money.”

Edwards, who is responsible for about $4.7 million each year to run his department, also said he feels like a bankruptcy doesn't disqualify a candidate from seeking office, depending on the circumstances.

“In some cases, given our economy today, if a person is forced into bankruptcy ... I don't think that ought to completely exempt somebody from being sheriff,” Edwards said. “There are circumstances beyond some people's control.”

More recent filings

The metro-area sheriff candidate who most recently filed for bankruptcy did so eight years ago.

Kelly Owings, an independent candidate for sheriff in Cleveland County, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2004.

Court records show Owings, 50, and his wife at the time had amassed $142,069 in debt by May 2004. The creditor with the largest claim was a mortgage company, who was owed $72,000 at the time of the filing.

Other debt consisted of $12,120 in credit card claims, $13,971 in medical bills and $2,774 for what was described as a 401 (k) loan.

The bankruptcy was the second for Owings and his former wife. The couple had filed before in May 1991, records show.

More recently, Owings was sued in small claims court after he failed to pay off $3,416 in credit card debt.

Owings could not be reached for comment on this story.

McClain County sheriff candidate Ryan Lake filed for bankruptcy roughly six months after Owings, in November 2004.

It's was Lake's second bankruptcy, but unlike his first filing — a Chapter 7 — the candidate claims he paid most of his debts back.

With a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, debtors are allowed a specific amount of time to spread payments out while avoiding contact with creditors. A Chapter 7 bankruptcy typically involves discharging of most of the filer's debt, essentially “wiping the slate clean,” as Lake put it.

In Lake's first bankruptcy, which was filed in April 2000, he and his wife had accumulated $6,605 in credit card debt and owed $4,646 for personal loans.

Court documents show that Lake and his wife had a 1997 Pontiac Trans Am, a 1999 Ford F-250 and a 1997 Maxum ski boat repossessed between mid-1999 and March 2000, the month before the couple filed for bankruptcy protection.

Lake said he wasn't surprised to learn that eight sheriff candidates in the metro area had sought bankruptcy protection in the past.

“Law enforcement pay is so low ... you run yourself ragged trying to survive,” Lake said. “I've worked two or three jobs to keep me and my family afloat. It happens in law enforcement.”

Lake said the bankruptcies, despite the hardships they caused, helped him become more financially responsible.

“You don't this job for the money,” he said. “You do it because it's in your blood, and you want to help people.”

Most cases from '90s

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by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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