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Fired prison guard now DOC executive

Scott Barger (left) and Michael Thompson, Department of Public Safety commissioner, are interviewed Feb. 1. Barger is Thompson's executive assistant. Photo by JIM BECKEL, The Oklahoman
Scott Barger (left) and Michael Thompson, Department of Public Safety commissioner, are interviewed Feb. 1. Barger is Thompson's executive assistant. Photo by JIM BECKEL, The Oklahoman

By ZIVA BRANSTETTER World Enterprise Editor & BARBARA HOBEROCK World Capitol Bureau
Published: 2/12/2012  2:26 AM
Last Modified: 2/12/2012  7:23 AM

Read key documents involving Scott Barger's termination from DOC for excessive force:

Read the Department of Corrections court brief.
Read the lawsuit findings.
Read the termination letter.

OKLAHOMA CITY - Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Thompson created a high-ranking job for a close friend who was fired from the Department of Corrections in 1995 for excessive force and civil rights violations, records show.

Inmates testified Scott Barger - now Thompson's executive assistant - was one of the prison guards who oversaw and took part in beatings of handcuffed black inmates during a "shakedown" at the Lexington prison, records show. A prison guard testified he saw Barger beating an inmate and that Barger later threatened him to keep him from discussing the incident.

The state settled a federal civil rights lawsuit against Barger and other DOC employees filed by 10 inmates, records show.

Thompson said he didn't know that Barger had been fired from DOC, where the two worked together at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center prison four years before the incident. Thompson and Barger, 43, also attended Purcell High School and National Guard officer candidate school together.

Thompson said that even if he had known about Barger's firing for excessive force, he would have hired Barger anyway for the job. However, Thompson said he would not hire a trooper previously fired for excessive force.

Barger is paid $60,000 annually to gather information for Thompson on a variety of policy matters at the Department of Public Safety. He said he has worked on issues including manpower, recruiting female troopers and tracking inmates who are a threat to troopers.

"I don't see the relationship between something that happened in 1994 and what he is doing for me now. He is doing a great job, and I have full confidence in him," Thompson said.

Barger was not charged with a crime, although the beatings were investigated by the FBI and a grand jury, records show.

Barger said he did not strike any inmates during the shakedown.

"The (Corrections) department and I had a disagreement about policy violations relating to this incident and I vigorously defended myself over those all the way to district court," he said.

Records show his firing was upheld by the Merit Protection Commission, an Oklahoma County district court judge and the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals.

Barger was hired by DOC in 1988 as a correctional officer and worked his way up to captain. The prison in Lexington serves as DOC's processing center for new inmates.

The night of Oct. 6, 1994, Barger helped direct a search of inmate cells, according to the Merit Protection Commission's final order in Barger's appeal. It states he was assistant commander of the prison's "Emergency Response Team" or CERT, "and was one of the officers in charge."

The warden had authorized the search because of reported gang activity at the overcrowded prison, the order states.

Fifteen members of the team, dressed in "light riot gear," conducted the search. One of the CERT members had compiled a list of 10 inmates who were "troublemakers," states the order, filed Sept. 3, 1996.

"After the shakedown was over, some members of the CERT team moved the inmates on the 'troublemakers' list to the receiving area to 'interview' them regarding gang activity," the order states.

Nine of the inmates were black "and one white plaintiff had a black girlfriend," their lawsuit states.

A magistrate's order in the suit states they were handcuffed behind their backs and "led backwards by their cuffs, ordered to keep their heads down." The inmates claimed they were forced to face the wall while being kicked and beaten with fists and batons from behind.

One inmate, Harold Cheatham, testified "the guards switched off about 10 times while taking turns hitting him like a punching bag."

Inmate Louis Harris testified that Barger was one of the guards who beat him.

"They told him if he fell to the floor they were going to beat him badly, so he made sure he did not fall down, no matter how bad it got," DOC records state.

Another inmate, Willie Loudermilk, testified that Barger and two other guards punched him in the back while using racial slurs.

Cheatham, Harris and Loudermilk passed polygraph tests regarding the beatings, DOC records show.

Barger said he also passed a polygraph test given by the FBI. He said he did not have records of the test.

The Merit Protection Commission order notes that testimony of three correctional officers corroborated the inmates' stories.

Correctional Officer Keith Newark "testified he witnessed Barger hit an inmate in the back of the legs with a PR-24 riot baton," court records state.

"Officer Newark also testified that Barger came into the control room and said they were going to get as many officers as they could to hit inmates that night so there would be collective guilt and if anyone spoke up they would all fall," states an order by U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Howland, dated Sept. 30, 1996.

Newark later resigned his job because of threats from Barger, DOC records state.

"Your conduct has violated the civil rights of offenders and served to intimidate a witness co-worker to prevent him from cooperating with an agency investigation," according to a termination letter by R. Michael Cody, the prison's warden at the time.

Ten inmates filed federal civil rights lawsuits naming 20 DOC employees, including Barger. Their claims included racial discrimination, excessive force and cruel and unusual punishment.

"I think it is important to know in the civil suit that I was dismissed from that," Barger told the Tulsa World in an interview. He said he did not know at what point in the suit he was dismissed.

Howland's order dismissed 15 defendants, leaving Barger and five others as defendants. The suit was settled shortly before the trial date in November 1996 and Barger remained a defendant at the time, records show.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections paid $13,500 total to settle the suit, said Jerry Massie, DOC spokesman.

After Barger left DOC, he worked for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, eventually becoming its deputy director.

In March 2011, several months after Gov. Mary Fallin appointed Thompson commissioner of public safety, Thompson hired Barger as assistant director of the agency's highway safety division. Late last year, Thompson created the position of executive assistant to the commissioner and assigned Barger to that job at a salary of $5,000 per month.

Thompson said he learned of Barger's firing when contacted by the World. He said he did not know the details of the incident and had not read any reports related to it.

Thompson said the firing and civil rights lawsuit did not turn up on a background check before Barger was hired.

"He's an unclassified employee so there is a pretty limited background check,'' he said.

Barger said he did not tell Thompson about the matter when he took the job.

"I've tried to do good things since then and not let that incident define me. That's not something I want to put on my resume," Barger said.

6/25/84: Michael Thompson starts work at DOC's Lexington Assessment and Reception Center (LARC) prison.

July 1985-August 1986: Scott Barger and Thompson attend National Guard officer candidate school together.

9/1/88: Barger starts work at the LARC.

1990: Thompson leaves DOC, graduates from 45th Oklahoma Highway Patrol Academy.

10/6/94: Barger helps lead a team conducting a search of cells at LARC. Inmates allege they were beaten by Barger and other employees.

1/18/95: Inmates file a federal civil rights lawsuit against Barger and other DOC employees.

7/20/95: Barger is fired from DOC.

11/13/96: Oklahoma Merit Protection Commission hearing officer upholds DOC decision to terminate Barger.

11/27/96: Inmates settle federal suit and DOC agrees to pay damages.

12/03/96: Barger files suit in Oklahoma County District Court challenging his termination.

11/24/98: Oklahoma County District Court Judge Daniel Owens upholds Barger's firing.

12/13/99: Court of Civil Appeals upholds lower court decision.

2/18/2000: Oklahoma Supreme Court upholds lower court decision.

12/20/2010: Gov. Mary Fallin taps Thompson as commissioner for public safety and cabinet secretary for safety and security. In that capacity, he oversees DOC.

3/1/2011: Thompson hires Barger as assistant director of DPS' Office of Highway Safety.

11/15/2011: Thompson promotes Barger to executive assistant to the commissioner, a new position.

Source: DOC, Merit Protection Commission, federal and state court records

Original Print Headline: Fired prison guard is now a DPS executive


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