Last year, Lawrence Morgan, a former city bus driver in Tulsa, Okla., and his wife were planning to celebrate Thanksgiving with family over a home cooked meal with all the trimmings.
But two days before the holiday, Morgan, 57, found himself thrust in the midst of a scandal that saw him handcuffed and arrested on charges of embezzling from Tulsa City Transit, where he worked for five years.
“We didn’t have a Thanksgiving celebration last year,” he told NewsOne. “I haven’t been able to get a job because of the bad publicity, so I have been panhandling to make ends meet, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to have a Thanksgiving celebration this year either.”
He, four other men, and a woman were accused of producing and distributing nearly 10,800 “2 Ride” passes, which violates the agency’s policy. The agency charged that they printed out extra passes, generally distributed when a bus breaks down or is late, and gave them to people to sell at a reduced cost.
However, their attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons told NewsOne that his clients, Morgan, Justin Copeland, Kenneth Speed, Beverly Drew, Leroy King, and John Smith, did no such thing. Earlier this month, he filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. Northern District Court accusing the Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority and three executives of violating their civil rights.
The workers, who have over 65 years of combined service to the City of Tulsa, were simply doing as they were told by supervisors, he said. The suit cites an administrative memo that gave drivers permission to issue passes to build customer service, and none of the workers were warned that they were violating policy.
Further, the suit argues that the city did not lose money because the passes had no value, and the workers did not personally profit from the passes.
“My clients were unjustly arrested, extorted, and jailed by the city of Tulsa,” Solomon-Simmons said.
So egregious are the charges that renowned attorney Benjamin Crump, who is president of the National Bar Association, threw his support behind the case this week.
“One of the areas the NBA is focusing on is employment discrimination in the African-American community and this case is a perfect example of the problem,” Crump told NewsOne. “The African-American employment rate is double that of Whites and we feel it’s important for the National Bar Association to vigorously fight against employment discrimination.”
The suit alleges racial discrimination against the drivers, “who were painted with the stereotypical brush of bias and prejudice that all Blacks are thieves, embezzlers and crooks.”
Morgan, Copeland, and Speed were arrested after an internal probe. They could have avoided arrest, Solomon-Simmons said, if they had paid upwards of $1,000 in fines, which he describes as extortion. The other three were not arrested or charged because they paid the fines, he said.
The three men allegedly embezzled almost $38,000, but charges were dismissed this spring after a judge ruled the state “did not demonstrate criminal intent,” according to News On 6.
The men’s lives have taken a tragic turn since their arrests, Solomon-Simmons said. They’ve been unable to find jobs because of negative publicity about the incident. And Thanksgiving Day serves as a grim reminder of how their lives were upended last year.
Kenneth Speed, 60, who worked for the agency for 25 years, says he can’t find a job to save his life.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he told NewsOne. “I’ve tried to get a job but no one will hire me. I went to four interviews and they never called me back. It was a high-profile case, and the paper made it seem like we stole cash and we were embezzlers. It’s not true.”
Crump and Solomon-Simmons said the case exemplifies the discrimination Black employees experience in the workplace. Solomon-Simmons notes in the suit that the city failed to treat similarly situated White bus drivers the same as the workers.
“The case has the full weight of the NBA behind it because these hard-working Americans were doing the job they were told to do,” Crump said.
Bill Cartwright, Manager of Tulsa Transit, told News On 6 that the “Tulsa Transit has no official comment on this case since it involves an ongoing legal matter.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty