Three councilors face ethics complaints

D.E. Smoot, Muskogee Phoenix, Okla.
·5 min read

May 4—A longtime volunteer and former trustee of the War Memorial Trust Authority filed ethics complaints against two city councilors who serve on the authority's governing board and a third trustee.

The three complaints filed Monday includes a second complaint filed against Ward II Councilor Alex Reynolds, who presently serves as chairman of the board that oversees operations of Muskogee's War Memorial Park. The first ethics complaint against Reynolds was filed Sept. 8, and another was filed more than a year ago against Ward II Councilor Jaime Stout while she served as chairman of the trust authority.

John Martin, who began volunteering in 2015 at the World War II memorial where the U.S.S. Batfish is located before being appointed later to its oversight board as trustee, filed all five complaints. Martin said he was asked to keep secret the ethics complaint he filed against Stout and the first one filed against Reynolds, but went public Monday after determining the city's ethics "complaint procedure is not working."

"With slow to no action, these two have been allowed to continue their damaging ways without consequences," Martin said about Stout and Reynolds. "The improper things that are happening ... are far too serious to continue to be ignored."

Stout said she has been interviewed about the alleged ethics violations and is waiting for the process to be completed. Ethics violations are investigated by the city attorney's office, which presents findings to city councilors, who decide whether ethics policies were violated and, if so, what action will be taken.

"We've been interviewed, and we're just waiting on the council to review," Stout said Monday, noting she has not reviewed the most recent complaints. "I gave my side and ..."

Reynolds said he and others named in the complaints "certainly haven't done anything wrong, and I will stand behind that 100%."

"We have had a change in command, and some of the older guys are having a problem with it," Reynolds said. "I have had to approach the city manager and city attorney to start an investigation and conduct a forensic audit — there seems to be other trusts and other accounts that have been put into play."

Among the ethics violations alleged by Martin is a failure to act in the public interest. One example alleged involved City Councilor Stephanie Morgan's use of the war memorial to promote her business, using the World War II-era submarine as a prop for a television program.

Martin said he was asked by the city's emergency manager to keep "track of the Batfish list to port" after flooding in May 2019 nearly washed away the vessel. After discovering some movement and devising a plan to secure the gangway and repair some welds, Martin said he was asked by Trustee Victor Lezama to wait until Morgan could be on the scene.

"Morgan was having some video crew follow her around for some type of movie or TV production supposedly related to her unusual day job," Martin states in a complaint. "She wanted to somehow be a part of the repair, which included having Morgan Towing use a large tow truck crane to lift the gangway."

Martin told Lezama, who denies violating the city's ethics policies, it would be "very unwise" to lift the gangway with a crane because "it could have unknown consequences." Despite concerns about a structural failure, Martin said there were deep ruts "apparently made by large tow truck tires" after driving near the gangway after repairs were made.

Morgan declined to comment.

Lezama, who is alleged to have a conflict of interest due to other projects in which Reynolds owns a financial stake, described the allegations as "a shame." He said in a city the size of Muskogee, perceived conflicts of interest will be common, but in this case it is "apples and oranges."

"It's a shame that things like this pop up because in a town of 40,000 people you are always going to have people who are involved in multiple venture groups because we are the doers," Lezama said. "You are always going to have a small community of doers in town."

Martin cited Reynold's ownership of a building Lezama plans to open as The Barracks, which Lezama plans to open as a resource and community center for veterans. He also cites Reynolds' position as principal officer of The Barracks Foundation, a nonprofit corporation that accepts donations for The Barracks.

The complaints also cite use of The Barracks to store items from War Memorial Park and an alleged failure to document the transfers. While there was no denial of The Barracks being used to store some items from the Batfish Memorial and Museum, both Lezama and Reynolds denied wrongdoing related to transferring and tracking the items.

Both men said the museum and memorial was in disarray when they came on board, and tracking items has been problematic. Reynolds said the more questions he asked, the "more pushback he saw from the old guard."

"It was such a mess that my position is we should close it and then reopen it the way we want it," Reynolds said. "It is bringing in some money — about $3,000 a month — but I feel we are offering a substandard experience."

Martin disagreed with the assessment, saying Brent Trout increased attendance and income during the years he served as executive director. He said criticisms of Trout are due to a lack of knowledge about how museums should be operated and efforts to replace him after he disagreed with Stout's efforts to have a third-party management company operate the facility.

City Attorney Roy Tucker said he expects to wrap up the four most recent complaints more expeditiously than the complaint filed against Stout, which remains incomplete after more than a year. He said because some of the parties and facts of the latter four overlap, it should go quicker.

Tucker, who will present findings but no conclusions, occupies a position that is appointed by city councilors. He is subject to annual reviews and can be dismissed upon a majority vote of the council.