Sheriff investigates dispute, files report

Robert Smith rsmith@pawhuskajournalcapital.com

Fewer than 24 hours before the polls opened June 26 for voting on a state question and in party primaries, the race for district attorney of Osage and Pawnee counties handed Osage County Sheriff Eddie Virden a true political hot potato.

A dispute regarding campaign signs erupted between the campaign of district attorney candidate Mike Fisher and a supporter of incumbent district attorney Rex Duncan. Each side was certain it was in the right.

Virden said Wednesday, following election day, that he made a decision to avoid interfering with the election process. His department tried to find out the facts of the situation, and he turned to the state attorney general’s office for guidance on how to proceed once the facts had been established.

Investigator Dale Hunter, who handled the fact-finding, joined Virden in sharing the results with the attorney general’s office. The A.G.’s office on Wednesday afternoon telephoned Virden with the following message: “Just do what you would normally do.” In other words, do what you would do with your findings in any other case involving accusations of misdemeanor theft of property.

That would mean passing information to the office of District Attorney Rex Duncan, who lost the June 26 Republican Primary to Fisher by a roughly 2-1 margin. Virden and Hunter looked at one another with expressions of surprise. They doubted Duncan could touch the matter, given that it involved his electoral race, and a dispute between someone supporting him and the campaign of his opponent.

The nuts and bolts of what Hunter found are as follows: a Republican activist named Kathy Miller knew the current owner of a particular parcel of property and arranged with that person — an absentee owner — to have the authority to put up campaign signs and take down campaign signs on that property. She placed signs for Rex Duncan on the property.

Hunter also found that someone representing the campaign of Mike Fisher talked with a Realtor who was handling the same piece of property about allowing signs for Mike Fisher to be placed there. The Realtor expressed an interest in the Mike Fisher signs, and said she would take the Rex Duncan signs down, but didn’t want to get her shoes wet, Hunter said he learned.

Hunter added a representative of the Fisher campaign reportedly talked with a potential buyer of the same piece of property about putting up signs for Mike Fisher, but not about taking down signs for Rex Duncan. That person reportedly said putting up signs for Fisher would be fine, but did not say anything about taking down signs for Duncan.

What followed was a scenario where Fisher learned someone was taking down some of his signs, and he went in search of the person he considered a sign thief. There was a confrontation. The sheriff’s office ended up responding to the situation.

“It appears to be a situation where they each thought they had permission to use the land,” Hunter said. Virden concurred with that assessment.

The person who actually had solid permission to place signs on the property was Ms. Miller, Hunter said, adding he thought Fisher acted as assertively as he did because he had a good-faith belief that he was right.

“I can’t point to either one having the intent to commit a crime,” Hunter said.

Virden said his office would submit its findings, as directed, and let the proper authorities make a determination.

Miller declined to be interviewed for this story, but Fisher and Duncan did offer comments in telephone interviews.

Fisher said Thursday he thinks the Sheriff’s Office should also take into account that Miller removed his campaign signs from the property in question, put them in her vehicle and drove away with them.

Fisher argued that Miller’s actions constituted knowingly concealing stolen property. Two deputy sheriffs were among witnesses to what happened, Fisher said.

Prior to the incident involving Miller, the Fisher campaign had been on the lookout for anyone taking signs, and had offered a reward for information about sign thefts. Mike Fisher has also expressed concerns about persons involved with the leadership of the Osage County Republican Party taking sides against him in a party primary race.

Rex Duncan said Thursday he was aware of the situation but had not yet reviewed any official reports on it. He agreed with the advice the state attorney general’s office had given Virden.

“It is highly unusual, but we’ll treat it the same as if it were someone whose name we didn’t recognize,” Duncan said. He acknowledged he would very likely recuse himself from making any decision on the matter, but said he would be willing to review the documentation and seek help, as needed.