Secret recording captures talk with volunteer deputy
Oklahoma City — Embroiled in a legal battle over the sale of his insurance company, Robert Bates met a former colleague at a restaurant to discuss the court case over drinks.
But Bates, the volunteer Tulsa County deputy now facing a manslaughter charge for shooting an unarmed suspect, did not know the 2012 conversation was being secretly recorded by his companion, Bryan Berman, the company’s new president.
During the exchange, Bates boasted of his connections in the sheriff’s department and the U.S. attorney’s office and suggested he could make life miserable for the plaintiffs.
The audio recording, obtained by The Associated Press from the court file of a federal case that was later dismissed, reveals the corporate executive as a man who bragged about using his position in the sheriff’s office to help powerful friends and whose work as a reserve deputy added a spark to his life.
“It’s kind of a thing that I need to go back to, to scare the s--- out of me, to make me feel good about life,” Bates said, chuckling, of his work as a volunteer deputy. “I love that. That was just great.”
The 73-year-old, who pleaded not guilty in the April 2 shooting, has said he meant to draw his stun gun rather than his handgun.
On Monday, embattled Sheriff Stanley Glanz announced the resignation of his second-in-command, who, according to a 2009 internal investigation, had been aware that Bates was inadequately trained but pressured officers to look the other way. Undersheriff Tim Albin had been with the department since Glanz, a friend of Bates, first took office in 1989.
Bates, who built and ran his own insurance company and eventually sold it for $6 million, also described himself as someone who does not fare well taking orders from others.
“I don’t do well with that. I don’t do well with direction,” Bates said on the recording. “I never have, since the first grade. My first-grade teacher and I had a problem with it. I’ve had problems throughout my life with it.”
Bates’ attorney, Clark Brewster, confirmed the authenticity of the recording, but described it as a “calculated” attempt by Berman to get information from Bates that might help Berman’s company win the lawsuit.
“This was two guys at a restaurant talking frankly about their experiences. And, unbeknownst to Mr. Bates, Mr. Berman apparently was surreptitiously taping him,” Brewster said. “It has nothing to do with the shooting. I can tell you that.”
Berman also confirmed that the audio was genuine but declined to comment further, citing more litigation over the sale of the company.
On the recording, Bates suggests he did favors at the sheriff’s office for Brewster, his attorney in the federal case. When Berman asks Bates about his legal costs, Bates responded that he had not yet received a bill.
“I haven’t paid him yet,” Bates said, then chuckled. “Let’s say, I mean, he knows I’ve done some s--- for him at the sheriff’s office for some of his clients.”
Brewster, who has a prominent local law practice, said he has never asked Bates or anyone in the sheriff’s office to do favors for him. He said it’s possible Bates was trying to name drop in an effort to get the plaintiffs to drop the case.
“I have no idea what that references,” Brewster said.
Brewster declined to make Bates available for an interview and said his client was out of state. Bates owns a luxury home in a gated community in Vero Beach, Florida, and, according to his attorneys, planned to vacation in the Bahamas while awaiting his next court hearing in July. There are no travel restrictions on his bail.
Bates, who is white, has been charged with second-degree manslaughter in the shooting death of Eric Harris, an unarmed African-American. Harris was the target of an undercover sting and was already on the ground, with two deputies on top of him, when Bates drew his weapon and fired a shot into Harris’ back. There is no indication that race played a role in the shooting.
As a young man, Bates had a short-lived career in law enforcement, serving as a patrolman for the Tulsa Police Department from 1964 to 1965. It’s unclear why he stopped pursuing police work. The department has not explained why Bates left the force or responded to repeated requests for documents related to his departure.
Evidence of Bates’ unwillingness to take direction from superiors at the sheriff’s office also emerges in the 2009 investigative report obtained by the AP and other news organizations from attorneys for Harris’ family. It shows concerns within the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office that the wealthy donor was conducting field operations for which he was not properly trained.
The investigation, which includes interviews with several high-ranking officers inside the sheriff’s department, found that Bates received special treatment and inadequate training. It quoted two deputies as saying they “felt Bates’ field operations were a little scary.”
It also concluded that when other officers raised complaints, they were told by superiors to keep quiet and were reminded of Bates’ generosity, which included donations of tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of vehicles and high-tech equipment to the department.
In one case, Sgt. Randy Chapman told an internal investigator that Bates was eager to complete his field training program so that he could stop vehicles and do patrol functions on his own.
When Chapman learned Bates was stopping vehicles on his own without the proper training and confronted him about it, Bates responded: “Well, I can do it, and if you don’t like it, you can talk to Tim Albin or Sheriff Glanz because I’m going to do it,” according to the investigative report.
Although Bates’ attorney maintains that Bates only rarely pulled drivers over, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol confirmed that Bates stopped an off-duty state trooper in 2013 on the Creek Turnpike, which is outside the jurisdiction of the sheriff’s office, agency spokesman Lt. John Vincent said.
The Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office has declined to discuss the contents of the 2009 investigative report, which the office’s general counsel, Meredith Baker, said should not have been released publicly. After initially denying the report’s existence, authorities are now conducting an internal review to determine how it was leaked.
The sheriff’s office has failed to produce numerous documents requested by the AP, including documents supporting Bates’ training and any of his disciplinary records.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler has said he’s highly concerned about the allegations in the report and that an outside agency should investigate the entire operation under Glanz. There is no indication that any outside law enforcement agency has launched an investigation.
Bates’ attorney, meanwhile, takes exception to the characterization of Bates as someone who contributed to the sheriff’s office so he could play cop, saying Bates donated to other causes without any fanfare.
“He can be boisterous and assertive and those kinds of things, but he’s the guy who if somebody’s mother is sick in Idaho, he goes and buys them a plane ticket,” Brewster said. “His generosity and heart for giving is huge.”