Lawsuits bankrupting OK Panhandle town

Thursday, October 5th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TYRONE, Okla. (AP) _ Lawsuits for former police officers have done what a century of natural disasters and renegades have been unable to do to Tyrone: drive it into bankruptcy.

The Texas County town of about 880 filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, which will allow it to stave off claims and attorneys fees that now equal the town's annual budget of about $150,000.

Friday's filing halts five lawsuits filed by former Police Chief Ken Winter; his wife, Denice Winter, a dispatcher; Dale Patrick Ryan, a police reserve; his wife, Connie Ryan, a dispatcher; and Scott Hedrick, a police officer.

``It (lawsuits) already had made the town insolvent to where it wasn't going to be able to pay its employees,'' said town attorney Ryan Reddick of Hooker, which is southwest of Tyrone in the Oklahoma Panhandle. ``We would have had to fire everybody just to defend the lawsuits.''

Ultimately, local taxpayers may have to shoulder some of the debt, Reddick said, depending on a payment plan that the town, its creditors and a bankruptcy judge devise. The bankruptcy court will decide first how worthy the creditor claims are.

Under Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the town can continue operating without a trustee and isn't forced to liquidate assets as in other cases, said Tulsa attorney Sam Bratton, who is representing Tyrone in bankruptcy court.

Ken Winter and Hedrick filed their lawsuits this year in Texas County District Court, alleging they were not paid _ as the police department's only full-time employees _ for overtime, sick leave, vacation and comp time. Winter, who resigned a year ago, wants more than $12,000.

Hedrick was fired two weeks after Winter quit because he took a town police car out of state to see Winter, Reddick said. Hedrick wants the town to pay him more than $18,000.

Denice Winter and the Ryans have filed their lawsuits in federal court, alleging they weren't paid at least minimum wage _ a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Winter wants $64,000, while the Ryans want $13,000.

According to the town, Denice Winter and the Ryans were volunteers.

An attorney for the plaintiffs, Kevin Weakley said he hasn't seen the bankruptcy petition, but that U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange recently ruled in favor of Denice Winter. The amount of Winter's award has not been determined and that may have prompted the bankruptcy filing.

Miles-LaGrange's ruling hinged on the town allocating money _ about $750 a month _ among its reserve officers. The money was doled out by Ken Winter.

Reddick said the money was given by the town board of trustees, without his approval, ``as a gesture of thanks. They didn't know about the federal wage law.''

While Ken Winter was police chief from 1992 until 1999, the town thrived and had a good reserve force, Reddick said. It derived nearly half its budget from traffic fines.

Today, the police force consists of a volunteer police chief who is paid a salary as the town's water superintendent.

A settlement in another police case is what prompted the lawsuits, attorneys said.

Former Officer Donetta Keeton sued the town last year, alleging she was owed unpaid wages and overtime. She also claimed the town was paying a male employee more money for the same work.

The town's insurance company reached a settlement with Keeton. Attorneys in the case said the settlement was confidential and they would not reveal the amount.

Town trustees got mad over the settlement and blamed Ken Winter, prompting his resignation, Reddick said.

Town Clerk Jane Keating said it will take more than bankruptcy to end the town.

``We didn't get run out by tornadoes, drought or Indians, so we're not gonna throw this place away because someone wants to whine,'' Keating said. .