OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Two former Oklahoma State Department of Education employees filed lawsuits Tuesday against State Superintendent Ryan Walters and his Chief Policy Advisor, Matt Langston for wrongful termination.
Several emails signed by Langston were pushed out to OSDE employees last Thursday.
The email says in part, “I have been made aware of internal documents being leaked to the press. This will stop so let this email serve as its final warning for anyone that has a disagreement on Superintendent Walters’ beliefs to fight the liberal woke culture seeping into our schools, liberal indoctrination in the classrooms, and pushing pornography in schools.”
Langston wrapped up the email with the threat of immediate termination for any employee caught “leaking” information to the press.
There were at least three different versions of this email sent out.
The emails contained different spacing between new sentences and very minor changes in wording such as “I’m” and “I am.”
Langston alluded on social media to the emails serving as a trap.
In one post, he referenced an article about the Tesla CEO, Elon Musk sending similar emails that were encoded with either one or two spaces between sentences, forming a binary signature that identified the leaker.
“A special thanks to [Reporter], [Blogger], [Reporter], and others in the Oklahoma liberal woke media squad. You were instrumental in today’s very successful effort in changing Oklahoma’s education system. You have my respect and thanks for making our jobs easier!” Langston posted to Twitter Thursday afternoon.
Langston and Supt. Walters doubled down Thursday night with a second email.
That email contained odd spacing as well.
News 4 has decided not to share a screenshot of the second email as it could be another trap.
“Today, we discovered a significant breach of confidentiality involving leaked agency emails. We have already identified three individuals involved in the leak, and we are actively pursuing others connected to this incident. This breach seriously undermines our values and code of conduct. Leaking emails is an unacceptable method of information access and disclosure. We are requesting those involved to make a responsible decision by voluntarily resigning from their positions. By doing so, they can potentially minimize the consequences that may arise from the ongoing investigation and potential termination,” a part of the second email read.
KFOR broke the news of the initial email being sent out to employees to Oklahoma City employment attorney, Mark Hammons.
In a phone call Thursday morning, Hammons said, “What is going on with the Department of Education?”
“Whatever happened to transparency in government? You know, people like Ryan Walters are trying to kill that,” stated Hammons.
Since speaking with Hammons on Thursday, he said several OSDE employees have been fired as a result of Thursday’s threatening email.
Hammons now represents two of them and filed two federal lawsuits on behalf of them on Monday.
One of the clients he represents, Cheryl McGee has been OSDE’s Executive Director of School Based Mental Health since August 2019.
She was fired on May 25, 2023.
Hammons said she tried turning in her resignation first, but OSDE rejected it.
“[McGee] felt like she was going to be terminated because she had shared information and so she resigned and they would not accept her resignation and insisted on firing her,” said Hammons. “There actually wasn’t any conversation. She tendered her resignation and then they contacted her and said that they were firing her. [OSDE] didn’t even talk to her about it.”
McGee did receive a letter terminating her employment.
“We regret to inform you that your employment with the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) is being terminated immediately. This decision has been made due to a breach of confidentiality by leaking internal agency emails to the media. Our media policy clearly outlines employees should not engage with the media directly but instead redirect inquires to the designated press secretary. Despite these clear guidelines and a prior email communication explicitly stating the leaking agency emails would result in termination, we have confirmed you have violated these policies by disclosing internal agency emails to the press without authorization,” the letter read.
In a Facebook posted published by McGee on Thursday, she shared what the work environment looked like under Supt. Walters.
“The bigger question we should all be asking is why are the antics of this current administration supported? In the office of student support alone, there have been 11 departures since January 2023. That does not include all the other divisions,” she posted.
McGee called OSDE’s current leadership divisive. She also claims OSDE discriminates and bullies.
“All you need to do is watch the immature behavior by those in leadership. More importantly, Ryan Walters and Matt Langston,” said McGee. “Their diversion tactics are part of the game. Don’t fall for them. Look harder, ask questions, audit, impeach and demand change. Public Education is being attacked and I cannot allow that to happen in good conscience.”
Hammons told KFOR his other client, Matthew Colwell didn’t get the opportunity to have a conversation with OSDE either about his firing.
Colwell has been the OSDE’s Program Manager of School Success since January 19, 2022. He was fired on May 26, 2023.
His lawsuit claims he was terminated for sharing information with the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office and an Oklahoma State Representative.
“Given the nature and scope of the activities of the Department of Education, its activities are matters of public concern. The information shared was a memorandum explaining that Walters’ proposed teacher pay plan contravened the requirements of federal and state laws and could have the effect of costing the State of Oklahoma approximately $18,000,000,” the lawsuit reads.
The Attorney General’s Office told KFOR they have received the information and are currently reviewing it.
“We believe this was a calculated effort to deprive people of their rights,” said Hammons. “They’ve suffered an emotional distress for the humiliation, embarrassment and worry that go along with being terminated from your job.”
Hammons said both of his clients are upset over the situation because they’re now wondering how to move forward.
“They were good employees. They were simply more loyal to their responsibilities as to the public than they were. That’s the kind of employee you want. You want an employee whose loyalty is to the citizens of the state, not to someone running for office,” added Hammons. “Every box you can think of that you would check for good government and good citizenship. [OSDE] did the opposite.”
Colwell and McGee are suing Supt. Walters and Langston in their official capacities as state employees as well as in their individual capacities.
“We do have a suit against them in their individual capacity, and that is for declaratory and equitable relief, saying that this letter, this blanket instruction is unconstitutional and invalid. We can do that as perspective, relief and non-monetary relief. But for the termination, since we’re suing Walters and Langston in their individual capacity, which means that they’re personally liable for the damages and may be liable for punitive damages,” explained Hammons.
Hammons briefly touched on Langston alluding to the original email sent on Thursday as a “trap.”
He told KFOR trapping employees is not technically against the law.
“To try to find out who is leaking is not necessarily the unlawful act. The unlawful act is saying that no one can tell information to the press,” said Hammons.
However, Hammons told KFOR all aspects of the email show premeditation.
“Doing the emails shows premeditation. You’re thinking about what you’re going to say and what you’re going to do. I think them doing the email trap to try and catch the people who submit that information to the public simply emphasizes how premeditated, how calculated and how serious the intention is to harm people who share information. I think the public’s entitled to know, for instance, that the Department of Education is trying to do that. Think of it this way, what is education? It’s the sharing of information. So here the Department of Education says we don’t want the citizens of this state educated about what we’re doing. We want to keep them in the dark about that. If that’s your intention, you don’t belong in office in any position, but especially not in a position where your job is to educate people and to share information,” said Hammons.
Hammons stated the next step in this case is to serve Supt. Walters and Langston with both lawsuits.
“Hopefully they will not hide out. But we’ll get them served. Then have to file an answer and then there are some procedural steps before we can start taking depositions and discovery that would move the case to being ready for trial,” stated Hammons.
News 4 reached out to the OSDE’s Office Tuesday morning for comment.
OSDE spokesperson, Justin Holcomb said, “OSDE does not comment on HR matters.”
Because Supt. Walters and Langston are being sued in their individual capacity, the lawsuit would also be a personal matter.
News 4 followed up with, “Thank you for your statement. I do want to point out that aside from this being an ‘HR matter,’ that it’s also a personal matter. Both Matt and Supt. Walters are being sued in their individual capacity in addition to being sued as a state employee. Since they’re both being sued in their own individual capacity, would either like to comment on that part of matter? I don’t believe it would fall under HR.”
Justin Holcomb later responded, “These legal claims are absurd, frivolous, and a waste of taxpayer time and money. It’s a political stunt with no legal merit.”