A judge on Wednesday ordered Epic Charter Schools to pay a state senator it had targeted in a libel and slander lawsuit $36,000 for his legal fees plus $500,000 in sanctions.
Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee had raised questions in the summer of 2019 about the school’s student attendance and enrollment practices, and Epic sued him in December, seeking at least $75,000.
In February, an Oklahoma County district judge dismissed the suit, saying Sharp’s comments and news releases about Epic didn’t meet the legal standard to prove libel and slander against a public entity.
Wednesday’s awarding of attorneys’ fees and imposition of sanctions by Oklahoma County District Judge Cindy Truong was based on her dismissal of the suit according to the Governmental Tort Claims Act and the Oklahoma Citizens Participation Act.
Enacted in 2014, the Citizens Participation Act is Oklahoma’s anti-SLAPP law, short for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” Anti-SLAPP laws are intended to prevent people from using courts or potential threats of a lawsuit to intimidate or silence critics exercising their First Amendment rights.
Truong ordered that Epic will have to reimburse the fees of the attorney the Oklahoma Senate hired to defend Sharp in the case. And as Oklahoma’s anti-SLAPP law allows a court to impose sanctions against the plaintiff to deter similar lawsuits, Truong ordered Epic to pay Sharp $500,000 as a sanction.
“Senator Sharp is very pleased with the result in this case and will continue to work to ensure proper oversight and use of state funds on behalf of his constituents and the people of Oklahoma,” says a written statement Sharp released Wednesday afternoon.
On the judge’s Wednesday ruling, Epic’s Assistant Superintendent of Communications Shelly Hickman said the company will appeal.
“There are multiple reasons why the judge’s rulings are erroneous legally,” Hickman said.
Sharp had questioned how Epic could have received millions of dollars in state funding two and three years ago now for 3,000 to 4,000 students in middle and high school when the Epic Blended Learning Centers in which they were enrolled could be attended only by students in early education and elementary school grades.
Epic warned Sharp in a “cease and desist” letter in September 2019 that he faced “immediate legal action” if he didn’t comply with the school’s demand for a published retraction of his previous statements.
After Epic sued Sharp in December, a bipartisan group of Tulsa-area lawmakers appearing at a public forum in Jenks accused Epic Charter Schools of using the lawsuit as an attempt to silence constituents whose concerns legislators are sworn to represent — and an attempt to intimidate other lawmakers just before their first deadline to file bills for the 2020 legislative session.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation has an ongoing probe into allegations of embezzlement, obtaining money by false pretenses, racketeering and forgery at Epic.
And as the Tulsa World previously reported, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Education’s law enforcement arm have also investigated Epic Charter Schools’ enrollment practices and finances for the past several years.
In response to the law enforcement investigations, Gov. Kevin Stitt requested an investigative audit of Epic Charter Schools and its related entities by the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector.
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