Law Practice Way of Life for Bill LaFortune

A painting obtained by his family many years ago was one of the first items in Bill LaFortune’s new law office at Moyers Martin Santee Imel & Tetrick where he is of counsel to the long-established Tulsa law firm.
It only had been framed at the insistence of his wife Kathy who just took the art work out and got the work done.
Another was a picture of Tulsa presented to LaFortune by the Sister Cities program.
For LaFortune, he is establishing — or re-establishing — a private law practice that was interrupted during a four year term as Mayor of Tulsa.
Actually, LaFortune continued, the law degree was constantly needed as mayor because of many issues that were part of being the city’s CEO.
‘‘I will maintain an independent law practice, but will assist Moyers Martin attorneys as needed,’’ he said. ‘‘I am working with other clients including the University of Oklahoma Schusterman Center on special projects.’’
Even as he returns to private life, LaFortune is proud of his public service career that is much broader than the high profile job as mayor.
‘‘My family was taught that public service is important,’’ he said.
Public service was part of LaFortune’s life almost from the time he earned his juris doctorate degree in 1983 from the University of Tulsa College of Law.
He served as a legal intern for District Attorney David Moss as a third year law student in 1983. Other students in the office at that time included Allen Litchfield, now an assistant U.S. Attorney and Tim Harris, now Tulsa County District Attorney, who was a student at the Oral Roberts University College of Law.
‘‘We worked together then and all are friends today,’’ LaFortune said. ‘‘David (Moss) was a role model for Tim and myself. He was a humble public servant, a man of faith and family. David’s humility was a quality lesson for everyone coming up in the legal profession.’’
LaFortune worked briefly for Telex before entering public service as a lawyer before being named as an assistant attorney general by Robert Henry.
Almost immediately he found himself charge with putting together the first multi-county grand jury that was approved by the Oklahoma State Supreme Court.
The assistant attorney general’s job was in Oklahoma City and LaFortune was commuting from Tulsa.
He had a good reason to be home as often as possible. He wanted to be with his new baby girl as much as possible.
Moss contacted the traveling attorney general in 1988, offering him a position in the district attorney’s office, a job that was immediately accepted.
‘‘I wanted a chance to practice law and prosecute cases,’’ he said. ‘‘I served as an assistant district attorney in the juvenile court for one year.’’
That was when he truly became aware of children’s issues involving abuse and neglect.
Then he went back to the adult district court and was involved in trying felony cases before Judge Joe Jennings.
But there was another call from Attorney General Henry in 1990 inviting LaFortune to open a Tulsa office.
This challenge was readily accepted. Earlier Henry had talked to his assistant about opening a Tulsa office, but funds from the legislature were not forthcoming as expected.
Initially, it was LaFortune and one administrative person on the staff.
He was to remain in that role until a special judge position filling the slot held by Judge Pigman opened in 1993.
‘‘I found I was handling arraignments and preliminary hearing dockets during my first year as a special judge,’’ LaFortune said. ‘‘I probably would still be on the bench if it had not been for the unexpected and tragic death of David Moss who had just won re-election.
After talking to his wife Kathy, LaFortune submitted his name for consideration. The appointment would be made by Gov. Frank Keating.
Other applicants were Tim Harris and Chuck Richardson.
At the end of the day, LaFortune found himself as Tulsa County District Attorney and faced with a daunting challenge. It would be a full four-year term.
He had to pick up the work his predecessor had started by prosecuting again the 30 major cases involving murder, sexual abuse and rape that had been returned to Tulsa County District Court because of improper jury instructions.
‘‘I was able to get some very wonderful help from attorneys who volunteered as prosecutors to handle the cases,’’ he said. These included Gerald Hilshire, Bill LaSorsa, Frank Hagedorn and S.M. ‘‘Buddy’’ Fallis. Convictions were returned in all cases.
There was another surprise for the newly appointed district attorney.
Mary Jo Speaker, now a member of the U.S. Attorney General’s office in Muskogee, told LaFortune that he needed to raise a quarter of a million dollars to help cover the costs of the National Organization of Victims Assistants conference scheduled six months later in Tulsa.
That was a tremendous conference, LaFortune said. One of the speakers was U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Family members of Nicole Simpson Brown also spoke. The conference was attended by people from all over the world, including Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
While serving as district attorney, LaFortune got to know Norman Wogelmuth, head of the Wogelmuth Chandler and Dowell law firm.
He was nearing the end of his appointed term as district attorney and accepted Wogelmuth’s offer to go into private practice.
Several years passed and private practice appeared to be the long-time role for LaFortune.
But that early training about public service surfaced and LaFortune found himself considering the race for Tulsa mayor.
‘‘I felt I had the leadership skills to do the job,’’ he said. ‘‘I learned a lot during that campaign, visiting people and hearing about their concerns.’’
LaFortune won the job and immediately found himself in a position that all CEOs dread. Tulsa’s economy was bad and getting worse. The airline industry was reeling from the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on New York and ripples from Enron and Wiltel collapse were rocking the city and nation.
He had to make tough decisions, including cutting employee salaries to keep the city operating.
In addition, he also was immediately was faced with dealing with the black police officers law suit and the water pollution case.
LaFortune feels those early decisions hurt him in his bid for re-election.
Yet, there was a bright moment when city and county residents pulled together to pass Vision 2025 program now underway. It was the beginning of the Tulsa turnaround.
It was great to see experience that happen, LaFortune continued. It also is wonderful to see how county and city governments were able to work together to effect this change.
Vision 2025 was not a perfect package, but it was something that many people could embrace. This city had to get competitive with Little Rock, Ark.; Des Moines, Iowa; Denver, Ft. Worth and Wichita.
Even though LaFortune is building his law practice, he also is working in the judicial arena.
He is an administrative law judge for the Department of Labor. The first docket handling wage and hour claim cases is set this month.
LaFortune reflected on his career, both in public service and private practice.
‘‘Practicing law means everything to me,’’ he said. ‘‘I did not come from a family of lawyers. There were no LaFortunes going to law school and there was no history to draw from.
‘‘I earned my juris doctorate in 1983 it was an important part of my life,’’ he continued.
And, he added, ‘‘there now are more pictures on my office walls.’’

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