Former Tulsa County Assistant District Attorney enters race against Steve Kunzweiler

By Samantha Vicent Tulsa World Mar 15, 2018

When deciding to run for his former boss’ seat as Tulsa County District Attorney, Ben Fu says the time has come for the chief prosecutor’s office to steer away from reactionary responses and lean forward with new strategies to better invest in citizens’ potential and re-establish trust with members of the community.

Fu, formerly under former District Attorney Tim Harris and current District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, formally announced his candidacy during a news conference Wednesday as a Republican, five days after his former co-worker Jenny Proehl-Day announced her intention to run for the post as a Democrat.

No other potential Republican candidates have yet publicly announced their intent to run against Kunzweiler.

While Fu and Kunzweiler worked on the same side for nearly a decade, the two now have differing approaches on how to reduce crime and imprisonment rates, handle cases against nonviolent defendants, improve interaction with law enforcement and use Tulsa’s unique access to help from the private sector.

Similarly, Proehl-Day’s campaign website says she wants to work on healing relationships with prosecutors and police, change incarceration trends to better align with public safety risks and “take a comprehensive approach toward community engagement.”

“We need a culture in the District Attorney’s Office that recognizes the place it holds among the entire community,” Fu, 36, said in an interview with the Tulsa World in advance of his campaign kickoff.

“We provide a public service. Many of the great businesses in this state recognize the conservative principle of ‘I did well because I was here,’ and they desperately want to bring business here. And in order to do that, they’ve gotta be able to tell their employees that Tulsa is the place to put down roots.”

He told the World when discussing current criminal justice practices in the area that “The way the current system works is untenable, and there’s no strategy to even keep the water level” in Tulsa County anymore without innovation in the office.

“We need to find a way to protect our community without raising taxes. We have a $200 million park (Gathering Place) that was donated, and that same organization is funding programs (Women in Recovery) that the last three years have shown a 3 percent recidivism rate,” he said.

“Show them (private enterprise) there are economic opportunities, there are good schools and there are safe streets. And all three of those are intertwined. And if they were to realize that it’s cheaper to pay for a more efficient justice system than it is to lose customers, to lose employees, then I’m confident they’ll spend the money.”

But he said the current climate within Kunzweiler’s office, which he departed from last year, has become “reactionary” rather than proactive and repeatedly said the department should ask, “Where are we going?” when asking a defendant to repay society rather than simply seeking a conviction on file.

Brett Swab, a colleague of Fu’s, told supporters during the news conference that Fu is “the consummate lawyer,” and asked for those in attendance to “move forward with someone who has the ability to show a vision and implement that vision.”

Fu, the former director of the District Attorney’s Special Victims Unit, received state and national recognition in 2016 and 2017 for his work on fixing the previous limitations of Oklahoma’s forcible sodomy and rape by instrumentation laws.

His efforts helped result in the implementation of the Justice for J.W. Act of 2016, which expanded the definition of forcible sodomy, and the passage of HB 1005, which removed a requirement that a reported victim of rape by instrumentation has to demonstrate physical injury for their attacker to be found guilty by a jury.

While at the office, he said he also helped establish the current “vertical team” organization of specialized units of prosecutors who handle homicides, crimes against children, victims of rape and domestic violence, robberies and gang crimes.

Fu told the World that system has sped up the time it takes for cases to reach resolutions and given attorneys the chance to better advocate for victims.

Kunzweiler, in his campaign announcement news release last month, highlighted a series of major jury trials during his tenure that ended with defendants receiving lengthy prison sentences for such crimes as murder, child sexual abuse, rape, robbery and gang offenses.

He also said Tulsa County has become a leader on his watch in keeping nonviolent people out of custody and has regularly pointed to the Family & Children’s Services Women in Recovery program as proof of his staff’s commitment to seeking reform rather than punishment.

However, Fu said it’s clear to him that if elected, he needs to ensure the investment of additional resources into Tulsa County’s alternative courts, which include dockets for drug users, veterans and those with mental health needs who face felony convictions.

There is no equivalent structure for those with misdemeanor cases, and as a result Kunzweiler has previously expressed criticism of State Question 780, which reclassified certain drug and property crimes as misdemeanors, saying such a change removes the incentive for people to complete alternative court programs successfully.

When asked about the issue, Fu said: “My response to him is, Find a way to inspire them without having to have the stick of prison hanging over their heads. If people want help and can’t afford it, we need to help them find a way. It costs us a lot more in vandalized cars, stolen property, in abandoned and neglected children and in the loss of human capital.”

Fu also advocated for the idea of securing private funding to begin mediation between victims of nonviolent crime and perpetrators in which they could agree on restitution and diversion programming without entering the court system, which he said will save resources and allow for more effort to go toward prosecuting violent offenders.

”The Department of Corrections is the No. 1 mental health provider in the state,” he said, calling that designation a sign of inefficiency and poor justice prioritization.

”If you count its entire population, it’s now the seventh biggest city in the state of Oklahoma. That is the fact that is waking everybody up.”