Easing back on the sofa in his south Tulsa law office one day last week, City Councilor John Eagleton reflected on a March 4 Tulsa World editorial cartoon by Bruce Plante that depicted him as Nero fiddling while Tulsa burns.
"That's not the city of Tulsa burning," Eagleton recalled saying when he saw the cartoon, punctuating his reaction with a rueful chuckle. "That's my political future."
As the initiator of a controversial ouster effort against Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. -- a fellow Republican -- Eagleton said he had no illusions about how that action would be received in certain quarters. In this era, or perhaps any era, the idea of one elected official aggressively trying to have another elected official of the same party removed from office is all but unheard of. The damage to his own political aspirations, Eagleton believes, is sure to be substantial.
He insists he doesn't care.
"This is not about advancing me or cause célèbre," Eagleton said. "This is about defense of the rule of law. And the defense of the voters' expectations of people who raise their hand and take an oath. As I said to a different commentator, the willful breach of an oath through inaction of this nature I think puts my eternal soul at risk. That's just how I see it."
In a presentation to the City Council earlier this month, the District 7 councilor outlined a series of allegations against the mayor that he believes have rendered Bartlett unfit to continue serving as the city's chief executive, including claims that the mayor received money not allowed for by law, lied to the City Council, and solicited and assisted individuals to file lawsuits against the city. Eagleton is attempting to collect approximately 1,100 signatures from Tulsa voters as part of an effort that would force Attorney General Scott Pruitt to investigate his claims.
Eagleton, a Tulsa native and Oral Roberts University law school graduate, said there shouldn't be any doubt about why he's pursuing this course of action.
"The motivation is derived exclusively from the oath I took when I was sworn in to be a city councilor," he said. "If I had not taken that oath, I would not be doing this now. But I promised to defend the city charter, the city ordinances, the Constitution of Oklahoma, the statutes of Oklahoma, the Constitution of the U.S., the statutes of the U.S. against all comers. That includes elected officials who are not behaving in accordance with their oath of office. It breaks my heart to be on this evolution."
His determination to proceed with such a drastic step, he said, was carefully reached. The decision was the second hardest one he has made in his life, he said, and has even affected his relationship with some of his closest friends.
"As I evolved in thought to reach the conclusions I've reached, it was really quite painful to realize that I was going to be going out on this and realize that there would be a collateral attack," he said. "Mistreating the messenger is always easier than defending the actions of the mayor. And I knew that I would be piñata-ed someway."
City Councilor Rick Westcott, another critic of the mayor, said he discussed Eagleton's ouster plan with him before Eagleton went public.
"For both of us, it was the last possible step," said the District 2 Republican. "One thing John and I discussed was whether there was any alternative other than what John has done. This was not done lightly or in haste. It was the last possible recourse."
Once he reached the conclusion he had no choice but to initiate the ouster movement, Eagleton said, he experienced a sense of relief.
"And that was the real hard part, going through it, determining there was a lawful basis for ouster and the ouster was in the city's best interest," he said. "Once those two questions were answered, it was a question of implementation. And since it went public, for four or five days, it was an interesting time. I think we're now into the long slog of collecting the signatures."
As of last week, that effort was lagging, he acknowledged.
"Getting the signatures is taking more time than I anticipated," he said, adding that a day earlier, he had received a large packet of signed affidavits that was useless because the documents had not been notarized.
While Eagleton declined to reveal the number of signed affidavits he has received from citizens calling for an official investigation, he described the number as "not enough."
Even so, he said, he will persist.
"As long as affidavits are being collected at a reasonable pace, I will continue to pursue this," he said. "If we get to a point where affidavits aren't being collected, and I've exhausted my abilities to collect more, we'll put it down and move on. And that is a real -- I hate to say it -- a real possibility."
The larger picture
Regardless of their ultimate success or failure, Eagleton's actions already have sent shockwaves rippling throughout the state and created some intriguing political theater. Roger Randle, a former Tulsa mayor and state Senate president pro tem who now serves as the director of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Studies in Democracy and Culture in Tulsa, described the ouster attempt as virtually unprecedented.
"I'm not aware of any similar situation ever having occurred in Tulsa history," he said. "If it had, you'd probably have to go back to the '20 or '30s to find it -- certainly not in modern history."
Randle was not surprised Gov. Mary Fallin declined to order the attorney general to investigate Eagleton's allegations, explaining that state officials are usually loathe to intercede in local politics.
"First of all, they're probably going to be a little unsure of themselves when it comes to analyzing an event like this," he said. "The significance of local affairs and the nature of the charges, while undoubtedly very significant from the councilors' perspective, are going to be issues that normally would not get their attention. The kinds of things they get involved in are probably of a much more clearly criminal nature."
While he has no official involvement in the controversy between Eagleton and Bartlett, state Republican Party chairman Matt Pinnell nevertheless finds himself in an awkward position as he watches a very public, and nasty, dispute between two veteran GOP office holders unfold. For him, the issue is a distraction, pointing out it's his job to motivate the 850,000 people who are registered Republicans in Oklahoma to vote for the party's candidates and support its goals. This controversy does not help him do that, he acknowledged.
"I don't have the staff or money or time to fight Democrats and Republicans," he said, laughing.
Pinnell declined to weigh in on the validity of the allegations against Bartlett -- "I don't know if it's true or not true," he said -- but said he is distressed at seeing his hometown in this position.
"I'm a Tulsa boy. I live in Tulsa, and I love the city," he said, though he noted he spends much of his time in the state capital because of his job. "I see what kind of relationship the mayor has with the City Council (in Oklahoma City) and other city leaders, as well. And, because of that, Oklahoma City really has been able to take some great strides over the past decade."
His sense of the year-long battle between Bartlett and the Tulsa City Council is that many of his voters are fatigued by it.
"The Republican base was really watching this a year ago when this administration took office," Pinnell said. "Then, we had this election in 2010, and that really took attention away from it."
Now, the issue is back on the front burner, though Pinnell was careful to indicate he doesn't blame Eagleton for stirring up trouble.
"He's doing what he thinks is right, whether people agree with him or not," Pinnell said. "I respect him for that."
The lesson from all of this is a fairly obvious one, though it bears repeating, he said -- elections have consequences.
"The world is controlled by those who show up. We're seeing that," Pinnell said before searching for a silver lining. "If anything, maybe this will get more people involved in the election next time."
A large part of his job as the state's GOP chairman, Pinnell said, is to watch for divides in the party. While this may qualify as one of those, he said he's unsure about what to make of it.
"What I've been focused on in my work as chairman is the Tea Party movement and getting the Tea Party folks involved in our party," he said. "I'm constantly putting out fires. I put out fires half the time, and the rest of the time, I'm raising money. I don't know how concerned I am."
Eagleton said he has been gratified by the support he has received from his fellow councilors on the issue, and some of those same councilors -- even those who have had their differences with him in the past -- express admiration for his personal characteristics.
"I think he's a good man. I don't have an issue with Councilor Eagleton," said District 4 Democrat Maria Barnes, who got to know Eagleton when they were both elected to the council in 2006. She described Eagleton as a very serious person and said she likes the fact that she always knows where she stands with him -- even if it's on the opposite side of an issue, as has often been the case.
Westcott shares that assessment.
"There's no guile in John Eagleton," he said. "He is what he is. Like him or not, there's no gray area in John Eagleton's personality, and I mean that as a compliment. He is what you see."
Barnes gives Eagleton credit for doing what he thought he needed to do in this instance.
"I think it's important to remember, this is not a recall, it's just a request to look into the allegations," she said. "Even if I didn't believe them, I would think people would like to have this looked into and have it resolved by someone. I think that's been lost. Let's just get down to it and have someone look at it and see if it's illegal."
Though he counts Eagleton as a friend and often finds himself allied with the District 7 councilor on issues, Councilor G.T. Bynum said that hasn't always been the case. His favorite Eagleton story stems from a difference of opinion the two had when city officials were crafting the "Fix Our Streets" package that would be sent to voters a few years ago.
The council was sharply divided on the issue, Bynum recalled, with one faction favoring a five-year plan and another supporting an eight-year plan. Bynum intended to vote for the shorter package, while Eagleton was an outspoken supporter of the longer one.
On the day the council was scheduled to vote on the issue, Bynum said, he awoke with a bad case of the flu and a 102-degree fever. Barely able to crawl out of bed, Bynum got himself dressed and made his way to City Hall, knowing how important his vote was. He knew he was in no condition to debate the issue, so his plan was to keep his mouth shut and vote in favor of the shorter plan, which appeared to have enough support to carry the day.
But Eagleton had no intention of letting Bynum off without an argument. It had been reported that Bynum had described part of the eight-year plan as "pork" because it contained money for other capital improvements projects besides streets, and Eagleton took exception to that characterization, calling on Bynum to defend himself in the pre-vote debate.
"Eagleton decides it's time to cross-examine G.T. Bynum," he said. "I'm thinking, 'This guy's just going to pick me apart because I can't think straight.' "
Fortunately, Bynum said, he was able to hold his own against Eagleton's pointed line of questioning, and the vote went as expected, with proponents of the shorter plan prevailing. Even so, as he left the meeting, Bynum seethed at Eagleton for putting him through such an exercise on a night when he clearly felt awful.
"I was never going to speak to him again and swore I'd do everything I could to make the rest of his time on the council as miserable as I possibly could," Bynum said, laughing.
That enmity didn't last long, he said. Ultimately, he found Eagleton so likable he couldn't hold a grudge against him.
When he first got to know Eagleton, Bynum said, he developed the impression that he was bombastic, very certain of his views and fond of using a flamboyant approach to conveying them.
"What's changed over time is I've developed an appreciation for the kind of thought that goes into those beliefs," Bynum said, though he noted that many people who don't know Eagleton well probably view him inaccurately as a shoot-from-the-hip type.
"I'm a great admirer of Winston Churchill, and I can't help but think that serving on a legislative body with Winston Churchill was a lot like serving with John Eagleton," he said.
Bynum also admires Eagleton's creativity as a legislator.
"There's nobody on the council who does a better job of thinking outside the box than John Eagleton," he said. "He'll often come at it from an approach none of us have ever thought about, and a lot of times, it's spot on and really helps clarify the situation."
Westcott, also a lawyer, said anyone who suspects Eagleton of grandstanding on this issue doesn't know him very well.
"If you know John at all, you know he is above all things a stickler for the rule of law," he said. "This is not grandstanding, this is what he believes is necessary to hold the mayor accountable for his actions."
Eagleton himself takes a less-direct approach to responding to such criticisms.
"I'm uncomfortable commenting on other people's motives for saying things like that," he said. "I can tell you what my motives are. If people interpret it differently, that's fine. They don't know my heart, and they haven't discussed it with me."
The impact of Eagleton's ouster attempt is likely to have a profound impact on two political careers -- his own, as well as Bartlett's. As he indicated earlier, Eagleton already seems resigned to the fact that he's done his own future irreparable harm and says he won't seek re-election to his District 7 seat if Bartlett is still in office.
"I consider myself done," he said. "There are people who are encouraging me to run for all kinds of things, they're supporting me, but if you look at the way politics works, friends come and go, enemies accumulate, and in the last 10 days, I've burned more bridges than Gen. Sherman ever did. That said, I can sleep well at night knowing I kept my oath without regard to the cost to me personally."
Still, Eagleton refuses to rule out another run for a district judgeship, an office he unsuccessfully sought last year.
"When I say I'm done politically, life is not like baseball," he said. "They call three strikes, and you're out. In America, as long as you can stand up, get off the ground and go to the batter's box, you get another chance to hit a home run. I'm fortified by Abraham Lincoln's life experiences, and I know that if I do what I believe is right, many people will appreciate it, and some will be motivated to help when the time comes."
Eagleton maintains once he has completed his signature-gathering efforts, he will be content with whatever happens next.
"If the AG evaluates the evidence and reaches a conclusion different than mine, I will simply move on," he said. "It is within his discretion. I will not criticize either the AG or the governor for their decision in this case. The prerogative is well within their purview. That's one of the components of being a good lawyer. You realize you can only advocate for a position. But ultimately a judge or jury will make a decision, and respecting that decision without regard to how you feel about it personally is just the way I'm trained. If the AG looks it and says, 'Not a sufficient basis for ouster,' we'll be done."
Nor will he use the issue as the basis for exercising his often-acerbic wit, he said.
"The gravity of this situation takes it beyond the realm where a humorous anecdote would be appropriate," he said. "Having fun about a Public Works project that's gone awry or things about public policy where people aren't being hurt and (where) the city's future is not in jeopardy; this is a magnitude above those levels. Yes, I have an occasional bent toward humor. This is not one of those occasions. It's hard to be funny when you're profoundly sad."
Bynum, who said he was waiting to make up his mind on the issue until he heard the mayor's response to the charges, also expressed serious regret over the current situation.
"It has literally -- not figuratively, but literally -- made me sick in the last week," he said, adding that chest thumping on both sides has contributed to the problems between the mayor and council. "You just hate to see this happening to Tulsa. I don't feel like we have a government worthy of the people it is supposed be leading, and this is just another chapter in that."
Ultimately, he said, none of this helps the city, taking a dim view of the prospects for reconciliation.
"And it doesn't stop until the parties involved aren't in office anymore," he said. "As someone in public office, I regard all this as as frustrating an exercise as I can ever remember being involved with. We're getting left in the dust by other cities, and it's through no one's fault but our own."
Share this article: