Unlawful contact trial exposes deeper issues in town hall
By Sarah Pridgeon
A simple charge involving a scuffle between Mayor Steve Sproul and a councilman has exposed the deeper question of a hostile atmosphere within Moorcroft Town Hall, as one witness after another gave accounts of physical and mental bullying during Sproul’s trial on Monday.
Sproul was found guilty by a jury of six peers on one misdemeanor charge of unlawful bodily contact.
As noted by defense attorney Steven Titus, the incident happened after a “huge, huge history” of tension within the town council. Sproul’s attorney described the mayor as an “outsider” who ran in 2014 on the promise to “drain the swamp” of corruption.
He met with opposition from day one, his attorney claimed, such as accusations from Councilman Owen Mathews that he did not actually live in Moorcroft. Other witnesses, however, described an unpleasant working environment and repeated altercations with town staff and council members.
Deputy Mike Rogers told the court he was summoned to investigate the incident on July 13, 2016. On reaching town hall, he met with Officer Ericka Bass, Moorcroft P.D., and was given two signed statements from Councilman Dick Claar and Public Works Director Cory Allison.
Rogers testified that he spoke with Allison, who witnessed the altercation, and heard an audio recording that Allison made at the time. Describing the incident, Allison told Rogers he had argued with the mayor the previous day and that Sproul “had got in his face”.
“He just thought the mayor was trying to provoke a fight,” said Rogers.
The argument allegedly resumed on July 13, centering on Allison’s desire for his department to work four ten-hour shifts per week instead of five eight-hour shifts. He had previously been granted permission from the full council to test this out but, he told the court, the mayor informed that he should return to eight-hour shifts immediately.
According to Rogers, Claar was present in town hall at the time and followed the duo to Allison’s office, where he and the mayor exchanged heated words. In his own testimony, Claar explained that he visits town hall a couple of times a day and was with a clerk when the mayor came in looking for Allison.
He heard the mayor “telling Cory to change the hours ‘today’,” and told Sproul that he “does not have the capacity to change them” without a decision from the full council. In Allison’s office, Claar claimed Sproul moved close to him during the ensuing argument.
“He gets right in your space,” Claar said.
The court heard a recording of what transpired within the office as the two men argued and Claar stated that the mayor could not continue with his “crap”. When the mayor asked him what he intended to do about it, Claar said that he would like to pour gasoline over his house and run him out of town.
On the recording, Sproul is heard asking Claar if he was threatening him and Claar saying no, it was not a threat. Sproul asks Allison if he heard the threat being made and is heard saying, “Get out of my way”.
According to Claar’s testimony, the councilman knew he was out of line the instant the words left his mouth and so lowered his tone.
“I’ve regretted that ever since I said it,” he told the court, explaining that he had wanted to “shock him”, “wake him up” and “bring him back into the real world” as Sproul has a tendency to believe he runs everything and is “ultimate manager”.
Claar stated that he began to take a step towards the door when Sproul came over, put his shoulder into Claar’s chest and used his left hand to shove him into the doorframe. He told the court he probably would have fallen had the doorframe not been there to catch him.
Allison corroborated Claar’s account that he was attempting to leave the room when Sproul aggressively bumped into him. During cross-examination, Sproul’s attorney focused on the history of disagreements between Allison and the mayor, asking Allison if it’s true that he wishes Sproul wasn’t mayor and questioning whether Allison supported Claar’s story because he has a better relationship with him.
“My relationship with anyone is better than the mayor,” Allison acknowledged in a wry tone.
Sproul’s attorney also questioned whether Allison really remembered what happened, as he could not describe exactly what motions the mayor made when he allegedly shoved Claar. Allison responded that he knows what he saw, he is just not sure exactly which hand was placed where.
Titus also questioned Claar’s relationship with the mayor, noting there was a time when the two men got along. Claar acknowledged this, but said things began to go south as the mayor tried to make unilateral decisions and work behind the council’s back.
“I’d never seen Moorcroft operated in that manner,” said Claar, who was appointed to fill a seat when one councilman resigned and has previously served as mayor and as a councilman during the 1970s.
According to Rogers, the mayor initially denied pushing Claar but, when told about the existence of two statements, acknowledged he may have, “bumped him with his shoulder”. Rogers told the court that Claar was “very apologetic” and said things had gotten out of control.
Both men were charged by the County Attorney’s Office. Claar pled guilty to breach of peace.
The prosecution invited three witnesses to describe incidents during Sproul’s term as mayor in which he displayed bullying behavior. First to take the stand was Dan Blakeman, who resigned as public works director six months after the mayor took office.
Blakeman told the court he had resigned after seeing three councilmen and numerous members of staff step down from their roles. He was unable to take it any longer, he said.
Blakeman testified that, shortly after taking office, Sproul barred his exit from a room and bumped him with his body after Blakeman stated his unwillingness to take orders from the mayor without the approval of all five members of the council.
Kay Guire then took the stand to speak of an incident during her tenure as clerk-treasurer. She described accompanying the mayor and others to the town lagoon to record sludge levels.
The mayor did not want her to be there, she said, and at one point walked directly into her despite being located in the middle of a field with plenty of room to pass her on either side. Sproul threw his shoulder into her, she claimed, causing her to drop her clipboard and pencil.
Guire acknowledge during cross-examination that she did not report the incident to law enforcement, though she did verbally inform the rest of the council. She stated she had consulted with an attorney but opted not to sue the town as she wanted to move on with her life after quitting as clerk-treasurer and did not want to be remembered as the clerk who sued the town during financial hard times.
Councilman Mathews testified in support of Guire’s account, telling the court he witnessed the incident. During cross-examination, Mathews was asked about his relationship with Sproul and admitted he did file complaints questioning whether Sproul actually lived in town; when he was a write-in candidate in 2012, his house in Moorcroft, said Mathews, was still under construction.
Mathews also described long-running problems for the council due to the way the mayor runs meetings, allowing audience members to bring up the same issues repeatedly and by doing so preventing the council from ever focusing on the business at hand.
The defense invited just three witnesses to take the stand. The first, Karey Hedlund, stated she had accompanied the mayor to the lagoon on the day he allegedly shoved Guire and had neither witnessed the incident nor heard it spoken of.
Clerk Jesse Connolly described seeing Sproul and Claar walking through the building and hearing Claar say, “If you want to see an f-ing moron, look at the mayor”. She told the court Claar had returned later to apologize to staff for what he had said.
When asked if she has opinions on how the mayor runs the town, Connolly hesitated before stating that she thinks he runs it to the best of his ability, saying, “you can’t do more than what God gives you”.
During cross-examination, Connolly acknowledged that, aside from two or three maintenance workers, she is the only member of staff at town hall who was employed there prior to Sproul’s election.
When Sproul himself took the stand, he stated he ran for election on a platform of, “integrity, honesty and getting rid of corruption”. He said he had wanted Allison to change his work schedule to, “serve the public better” and, contrary to Claar’s account, that he voiced concerns “right up front” about the idea.
Sproul told the court it was his belief that changing the hours was within his power and responsibility. That’s what he was elected to do, he said – supervise.
Sproul claimed Allison was “a little upset” because the change would interfere with his Fridays off to coach at the high school and that Claar, “interjected and started hollering that I couldn’t do that”. He said that, according to statute, the mayor runs the town and the council act as legislators.
Sproul’s account of the incident was that he could see things getting out of hand and wanted to remove himself from Claar’s office, but the councilman was in his way. “I’d call it a brush,” he said.
Sproul also flatly denied the incident with Guire, stating, “I take offense, because I’ve never touched a woman in my life”, and denied the incident with Blakeman.
During cross-examination, County Attorney Joe Baron asked the mayor why his accounts of the incidents have changed over time after initially denying he pushed Claar. Sproul appeared agitated, talking over Baron until Judge Matthew Castano stepped in to order him to let counsel finish his question.
The prosecution concluded by reiterating that the facts and evidence support the claim that Sproul shoved Claar during the alleged incident.
“There’s no question that the events here took place,” he said, adding that the only question was whether the bump was accidental or intentional. Referring to the utterance of “get out of my way” on the audio recording and testimony on the atmosphere within town hall, Baron said it’s clear he was mad – both men were mad – but, even if that fact is in dispute, he still acted rudely.
“Mr. Sproul says what he wants when he thinks he can get away with it,” he added.
Other witnesses show his actions were not a one-time thing, he continued; this is simply who Sproul is.
Baron also noted that Sproul is significantly taller than Claar and would have needed to intentionally drop his shoulder to shove him in the manner indicated. As to the mayor’s claims that he ran for election to “drain the swamp”, Baron suggested that this case “hasn’t helped any” and encouraged the jury to ask themselves whether disagreeing with someone gives a person the right to walk all over others and push them about.
The defense closed with many questions over the prosecution’s case, such as the relationships between witnesses who corroborated one another’s stories and the “strong hatred” towards the mayor.
Sproul’s attorney stated that the mayor has no doubt made his enemies but has done what the people elected him to do: change. Calling Claar an “over-zealous councilman” who had not been invited to the conversation, he asked what members of the jury would have done on hearing the threat Claar made.
In his final note, Baron stated that the case was “about something we all learned early: keep your hands to yourself”. It was about basic human decency, he concluded.
After retiring for just over an hour to consider the matter, the jury found Sproul guilty of unlawful bodily contact with rude intent. At time of going to press, sentencing in the matter was still pending.