Every so often, perhaps once a week, the Oklahoma State Senate closes its doors, posts aging sentries outside in the hallways of the Capitol and proceeds to discuss very private and presumably sensitive matters. It is called executive session. The topics, which invariably leak out and startle no one, usually concern new appointments to office by the governor.
On February 28, 1979, however, the Senate, while in executive session, broached a very different matter. It seemed a certain reporter from the Daily Oklahoman, the eminent Jack Taylor, wanted to see the senators’ telephone records—showing whom they had called during the interim period preceding the legislative session, how long they had talked, and the cost of each call. Senate President Gene Howard had already provided Taylor with the total telephone expense of each senator, but the implacable reporter insisted on a breakdown. He wanted it all.
Howard felt compelled to call his colleagues together into a secret conclave. There, knowing each of them had received a written request from Taylor for their phone records, he recommended that they not respond. They agreed—nearly unanimously—and Taylor’s letters were subsequently crumpled up and confined to the 25 or so office wastebaskets. When Taylor wrote a story several days later reporting the Senate’s action in executive session, Howard immediately convened another meeting. Secrecy, he commanded from his podium, was imperative. Anyone who violated the confidentiality of an executive session could and would be expelled from the Senate. Or so it was implied. Afterward, Senator Herschel Crow was seen prowling through the press gallery searching for hidden tape recorders.
The reason for not releasing the phone records, Howard explained later, was that it would reveal everyone whom the senators call, including state employees who confidentially expose the ineptness of a department head. “It is similar to the confidentiality of sources that the media often claim,” he said.
But there was another reason: sheer obstinacy. Howard believes the Daily Oklahoman, and Jack Taylor, are out to get him, out to embarrass the Senate, ruin his career. He is not the only one who fears such, and should it occur, he would not be the only one to claim the distinction. Former Governor David Hall, for one, blames Taylor for much of his demise; Louie J. Roussel, a businessman in New Orleans, believes Taylor tainted his reputation; Jack B. Sellers, a lawyer in Drumright, claims he has been defamed. There are others, rightly or wrongly: Owen D. Austin, former chief of the tax commission office in Tulsa; Joe Carter, former press secretary for Hall; E. Allen Cowan II, a Shawnee contractor; and A. W. “Sunny” Jenkins, a former Hall aide. Only Gene Stipe, it seems, the eastern Oklahoma kingpin and state senator, can recline in his padded chair in the Capitol and chuckle with amusement; Taylor trained his investigative weaponry on him in an exhaustive, eight-part series last year, and there ensued not a single indictment or legal complication. In fact, some say Stipe used the publicity to run for the U.S. Senate—although, it might be recalled, he lost.
Jack Taylor does not appear to concern himself with people’s accusations he is a hatchet man for publisher Edward Gaylord. He plods along in his juggernaut fashion, putting in 17-hour workdays, sometimes five, six, seven days a week. He is a sedulous researcher, scouring public records for hours on end, compiling minutiae, interviewing sources (always anonymous and “well-informed”), spending great spans of time at the Xerox machine on the fourth floor of the Oklahoma Publishing Company. Hardly is he a flashy interloper. He is not apt in imitation of Carl Bernstein, to brazen his way into a taxicab, pounce on a public official’s lap, and nonchalantly request an interview. Dramatics like that befit neither his nature nor his bulk.
Taylor, however, is a tenacious journalist, magnificently disciplined and somewhat of a fanatic organizationalist. He diagrams and charts every connection involved in a story, whether it be people or corporate entities. He clips articles from national and local newspapers on the discriminating premise that one day the information might be of some use. He also writes memos of Faulknerian length and files them away in his private office, the sole office at OPUBCO reserved for a single reporter. Jack Wimer, formerly investigative reporter at the Tulsa Tribune and one who cooperated with Taylor on several stories, recalls how “he once wrote a 30-page, single-space, typed memo to himself on a story that he never wrote.” He also once drew up a list of every Freedom of Information Act request that he had ever made, to which governmental agency, how many were approved, how many were denied, how many were denied in part, and what section of the law was cited for denial. These kind of pedantic efforts leave the impression that he is attempting to document, for posterity’s sake, his own endeavors in addition to merely substantiating the stories. Though his meticulousness certainly pays off, the surplus of wasted effort must be enormous.
Recently, Jack Taylor was kind enough to impart to me some basic biographical facts about himself, although he refused to grant a full-fledged interview, explaining that he believes a reporter should shun the limelight. Currently, he is assigned full-time to the state Capitol (a fact that unnerves Howard and Governor George Nigh), so he is more accessible than usual. Still I had to accost him on the run one morning as he strode out of Senator Roy Boatner’s office.
“Okay,” he relented, this being my third inquiry for personal information, “I was born August 1, 1938, in Oklahoma City. I went into the Navy Reserve August 1, 1955, and into the regular U.S. Army on June 6, 1958… I was married June 1960 in Panama to a girl from Milwaukee, and we have five children, one of which we’ve adopted. That was our first foster child. We had him about 10 years and then adopted him. We’ve had him about 10 or 12 foster children throughout the years…” He continued walking rapidly as he doled out the pertinent data. “I attended the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City University, and I majored in history and political science. I never took my language or science. I also never took a journalism course in my life. I kind of fell into journalism later.” He stopped in the north corridor of the Capitol, his voice becoming more clipped. “At any rate, that’s it in a nutshell. I like to garden—patented roses and vegetables. It’s good relaxation, but I also like to do my work. Which I’m trying to do right now. That’s basic biographical data.” He intoned it with finality, then turned and headed into the pressroom with its ascending din and clatter.
Taylor is 40 years old and he has never worked for any other newspaper but the Daily Oklahoman. He was hired by the paper in 1962, and worked as a reporter for a number of years. He did not demonstrate extraordinary savvy for investigative journalism initially, although he wrote several articles on city gambling, booking operations, and bootleg whiskey sales that presaged his diligence of the 1970s. Eventually he was promoted to the state editor, and there he ruled with an iron hand. Reporters did not care to work in his demanding presence. About this time, in the late 1960s, Taylor began putting in extra hours in a private pursuit for military secrets. The focus was on the My Lai massacre of 1968 and similar atrocities, and Taylor, well-acquainted with the bureaucracy of the military, began making strategic and voluminous requests for material under the Freedom of Information Act. The military responded, grudgingly, and Taylor would scrutinize the material to discern what was newsworthy. An officer once informed the Oklahoman that additional secretaries had to be marshaled in order to accommodate Taylor’s request.
It was during this period that Taylor’s assiduousness was formed and solidified. On one occasion, while the army was still giving him the runaround, he compiled all the mailings documenting the military’s dilatory tactics and had copies sent to every congressman and senators in Washington, besides people in the defense department. When the newspaper received a $1,600 postage bill, editors decided to invoke some restraint. But the My Lai articles continued, some 80 of them over a four or five-years. The series garnered awards from Associated Press editors, the Oklahoma Press Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists. Prominent editors judging for the American Newspaper Guild in 1973, however, took one look at the series, dubbed it redundant and tossed it aside on the first round. First prize that year went to Woodward and Bernstein for their reporting on the Watergate scandal.
That has been a problem of Taylor’s. His copy is insufferably boring. His stories, which, unlike other reporters’, are never touched by copy editors on the central news desk except to correct grammar, trail off into all sorts of complexities presented in the most stodgy fashion. Editors tried to cure him of the malady in his developing years, but to no avail. Taylor continues to dispense with any pungent verbiage, the length of his sentences are always the same, and the copy drones on interminably. Associated Press editors, who work in an office in the basement of OPUBCO and received copies of original Oklahoman stories through a pneumatic tube connected to the newsroom, dread the delivery of a Jack Taylor piece, which must be condensed for the wire. “It would come down the tube and we’d all just groan,” says one journalist.
On my next attempt at an interview with Taylor, in which I would have asked him about My Lai and his soporific copy, he expressed a new reservation. Four journalists whom I had interviewed about him, he said, had called him immediately afterward, repeating some of the questions I had posed. From these examples, he deduced that my perspective for the article was “warped.” I told him certainly some of the questions were adversarial (i.e. “Have you ever known Taylor ever to use wiretaps?”), but those particular interviews were quite innocuous and complimentary of him. “I think if you would examine all the questions I asked you would see—”
“Perhaps,” he interrupted. “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. I’ll just withhold judgment until I read it. But I’m just saying that if they’re giving me a fair representation, your approach is wrong.”
“Then they’re not giving you a fair representation,” I replied.
“Okay, I’ll withhold judgment.”
“Okay, I’d like to inquire about some of the stories you’ve done.”
“Well, you can go up there (to the newspaper office) and read them if you’d like.”
In fact, I tried that. But I was informed by managing editor Jim Strand that I could not peruse the Taylor clippings, and that the entire OPUBCO clip morgue would soon be closed to the public because of “manpower problems.”
Returning to Taylor, I offered again, “I’ll gladly tell you exactly what I asked them.”
“No, that’s all right,” he said.
“I’ll go back and show you every question.”
“That’s okay. That’s okay.”
“I suppose that bends ethics, because I’m sure you wouldn’t show every question that you ask people—”
“On the contrary,” he cut in. “When I was doing the Stipe series, I had 258 questions all prepared in advance to ask him. Of course, I wouldn’t have given them to him in advance, but I certainly would have shown them and asked him one at a time.”
“Well, I’ll gladly do that for you.”
“No. No. I don’t need to. That’s all right.”
In late 1974 or 1975, Taylor wrote a series of articles on an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission into suspected fraud in commodities trading in Oklahoma. Jim Henderson, and investigative reporter for the Tulsa World and now a columnist for the Dallas Times-Herald, assisted Taylor on the story and remembers him well.
“Taylor struck me as having a military bearing,” he says. “He is hard-nosed, a little icy, a little offensive and has monomania. He just focuses straight ahead. I was a little bit hesitant about working with him on the commodity story and three or four follow-ups—but I got to like that guy a hell of a lot. The son of a bitch works hard.”
One of the individuals Taylor and Henderson were pursuing in the story was a man named Bill Fisher, then administrator of the Oklahoma Securities Commission. During their investigation the reporters discovered Fisher had backdated a letter to a clearinghouse authorizing the house to transfer $150,000 to a company in the British West Indies. “We knew he had backdated the letter authorizing money out of the country, but we weren’t really sure why,” says Henderson. The story was mounting in complexity, and he and Taylor sat around Taylor’s house in Oklahoma City one evening toying with this piece of the puzzle. “I left about 10 or 10:30, drove to my motel, and went to bed,” Henderson recalls. “But Taylor sat down, started from the beginning, and laid out everything in chronological order. He must have been up until at least two or three a.m. Then he realized the reason—the letter had been backdated two days before the clearinghouse filed for bankruptcy, which would have frozen the assets.
“He called me first thing the next morning. We went trotting back to Fisher and confronted him. That was on a Monday. The story ran on Tuesday, and Fisher resigned.”
Henderson remembers several other incidents regarding the commodities investigation, again involving Fisher. After the securities administrator testified before the SEC one day, he left and Taylor and Henderson followed him out of the building. “We had a suspicion that he might be meeting to compose notes with some of the people involved,” he explains. They tailed him west on Northwest Highways and into a residential area, where Fisher stopped at a house. “Taylor got out and wrote down the tag numbers of all the cars out front. His father’s house was nearby, so we went there and called the Department of Public Safety to check the tag numbers to see who was in the house. It turned out maybe two of them were people from the clearinghouses. Well, that was enough for me. But Taylor wanted to go to the house and confront them. He went there and banged on the door for a long time. Finally, and old woman came to the door and said no one was there. Taylor argued, ‘Come on, I know they’re in there,’ but it didn’t work. Still, it shows how tenacious he was.”
Another time Taylor and Henderson appeared at Fisher’s office one day asking to see certain documents. “Fisher was balking, he was apologetic,” recalls the columnist. “He kept saying, ‘Boys, I’m not trying to hide anything, I’m not trying to conceal anything from you. I have an opinion from the attorney general that says those aren’t public documents.’ I was ready to go, but Taylor jumped up and said, ‘Let’s go get ’em,’ picked up his briefcase and walked back to the file cabinet. Fisher was flabbergasted, he was rattled. He walked back with him, said, ‘Okay,’ and gave him the documents. We picked out the ones we needed, Xeroxed them, and left.”
“Did you always want to be an investigative reporter?” I approached Taylor with this innocent primer in the waiting room of the office of Senator Bernest Cain.
“I’m going to pull a Thurman Munson on you now,” he informed me through a plume of cigarette smoke. “I told you I’m not going to be interviewed. Period. Did you see Thurman Munson on the tube last night?”
“No. I missed Thurman.”
“Well, Jim Buton was trying to interview him and Thurman wouldn’t, he just kept turning his back away. Finally, he grabbed the microphone. I thought he was going to hit him with a bat.” He looked at me with a hint of amusement. “I don’t want to be interviewed. I told you. I gave you the biographical data you asked for. Period.”
“Well, explain for the record why. How do you confront the apparent contradiction of—”
“There isn’t any apparent contradiction,” he broke in. “I’m a reporter, not a newsmaker. And I don’t think reporters ought to interject themselves into the middle of the stories they’re covering. You’re trying to focus a whole article on me, and I’m not worthy of it. Why don’t you talk to Senator Cain here about his long, arduous fight to win a seat in the state Senate? There’s all kinds of stories out there. Not me.”
Taylor expressed further doubts about my objectivity, based on the four phone calls from interviewees, then in the middle of another question, he leaned over and attempted to turn off my tape recorder.
“No. I want to keep this on,” I said, pulling it back.
He extracted from his coat pocket a miniature cassette recorder and switched it to “record.” “Go ahead, go ahead,” he instructed, holding it up.
“Okay, I’d like to—”
“When were you born?” he inquired.
“I’d like to ask—”
“When were you born?” he asked again.
I persisted. “I’d like to ask you—”
“When were you born? I’m asking you some biographical data.”
“—how you choose the subjects you report on?”
He lowered his tape recorder in mock incredulity. “Are you not going to answer any of the kinds of questions that I went ahead and answered?”
“I’ll grant you an interview.”
“Okay. Do you want to set a time and place?”
“Right now. Right here.”
I felt like I was finalizing a duel. “Well, I don’t have time right now.”
“I don’t either. I’m trying to work.”
A secretary who had been listening to this exchange with a very flustered and annoyed expression on her face stepped in. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” I begged off, and at that moment Senator Cain arrived for his interview with the inquisitive Jack Taylor.
Contrary to what many people believe, Taylor was not wholly responsible for the downfall of Governor David Hall. Hall was convicted and sent to jail on charges that Taylor never reported on until the indictments had virtually been handed down. However, it was Taylor’s earlier stories, spanning 1973, 1974, and 1975, and covering federal investigations of Hall’s tax records and kickbacks from builders to his campaign in return for state building contracts, that sullied the governor’s reputation and cost him the primary election.
Hall and his staff tried to ignore the articles at first, but the sheer number of them, coupled with the grand jury investigations, demanded some kind of response.
Finally, on January 7, 1974, Hall came out swinging. He filed a suit against the federal officials contending his rights had been violated, and he announced he would run for reelection. He also held a news conference, and proceeded to decry the “baseless innuendos, the shadowy tactics, and covert methods that have been used to embarrass this administration.” Taylor was seated on the front row of the press gathering and he began firing lengthy, detailed questions at him. Three months later Hall held another press conference on live television, and Taylor again positioned himself front row center. In one tense moment, following a barrage of Taylor interrogatories, Hall wheeled and glared at him, a rare display of animosity from the usually ebullient governor.
Hall, naturally, despised Taylor. He told his press secretary Ed Hardy he never wanted to see the reporter in his office, although Hardy neglected to convey the message to Taylor. One morning Hall strolled into the waiting area of Hardy’s office and saw Taylor seated in the next room. Quickly he retreated, slipped back into his desk and buzzed his press secretary over the telephone intercom. His message, according to Hardy, was to get Taylor off the premises immediately.
Taylor, nonetheless, continued researching and churning out his stories indefatigably. So much so that people today, when recalling the Hall scandal, tend to attribute the uncovering of the improprieties to Taylor. In late 1974 one day, while Hall was visiting downtown Oklahoma City and Taylor was browsing the area, an elderly woman from LeFlore County recognized him and walked up. According to one observer, “This five-foot-two lady began screaming and yelling and shaking her fist at him. He said, ‘Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am,’ and when she finally got done, he started asking her questions about David Hall.”
Taylor’s stories actually never precipitated a single investigation of Hall, only reported what other agencies like the Internal Revenue Service and FBI were already investigating. And to accomplish this, he relied on his ubiquitous “knowledgeable sources,” a focus of some controversy among fellow journalists. Taylor did not appear to use a “Deep Throat,” but his sources rarely were named. Hall’s aides accused him on conspiring with U.S. Attorney William Burkett, a Republican, and state Attorney General Larry Derryberry, who coveted the governor’s seat.
Burkett, currently in private practice in Oklahoma City, admits, “I’m sure Taylor got information from me. He’s good at that. He can really worm stuff out of you without you knowing it. He also freely passed information on to me. I don’t know of him ever holding back.”
Burkett recalls the time Hall’s indictment was on the verge of being handed down. Originally, it was scheduled to occur on Tuesday, January 14 (1975), but Monday morning, while Burkett was sitting in his office with FBI agents and Secretary of State John Rogers, who had turned informant, “I got a call from the justice department. They said the attorney general was going to make a press statement, so would I delay the indictment.” Burkett consented to hold off until Thursday. That afternoon, Assistant U.S. Attorney O.B. Johnson burst into Burkett’s office. “He was white as a sheet,” says the attorney. “He said, ‘Your office must be bugged, because I just talked to Jack Taylor, and he knows you’re going to indict David Hall, that you were going to do it tomorrow, but that the press statement will delay it until Thursday.’”
Burkett picked up the phone and dialed the justice department to determine how the news had leaked. In the middle of his inquiry, a thought struck him. “I said, ‘Wait a minute.’ I hung up and called John Rogers and asked him, ‘John, did you talk to Jack Taylor?’ He said, ‘Oh, no! Well… I had lunch with him.’ So there was the bug.”
Taylor’s sources likely ranged from secretaries to investigators to government officials. Hall’s own private detective, Robert O. Cunningham, proved a source for Taylor on stories regarding Hall’s aides; Taylor visited his office several times a week.
In spite of the enmity between Taylor and Hall, Mike Williams, former investigative reporter for KWTV, campaigner for Hall, and acquaintance of Taylor’s, has an interesting observation about the relationship. He believes that Taylor “loves David Hall. I’m about convinced he voted for David Hall.” This assessment was made from dinner conversations William had with Taylor and his wife. “He has a great admiration for David Hall—how he stays ‘up’ all the time, how he is always friendly, how he doesn’t hold a grudge. ‘That guy,’ he says, ‘I don’t understand how he does it.’ ”
After Hall was released from prison, Taylor contacted him indirectly and asked him to go out for lunch. The ex-governor politely declined.
I caught up with Taylor again as he was pounding on the corridors of the House of Representatives, and, like always, our conversation continued at his rapid gait. This time I ventured some more challenging questions.
“I’d like to get your response to people’s accusations that you are a hired gun, a hatchet man,” I asked.
“Well, if you have done an adequate research job, you’d know that’s untrue.”
“Do reporters like yourself have trouble with sacred cows at your newspaper?”
He slowed his pace, preoccupied with finding a representative’s office. “I don’t really have the time…”
“I’ll be glad to schedule another interview,” I offered.
“No.” He turned his full attention to me. “It’s not the point of not having the time—I don’t have the time at the moment—but it’s that I don’t want to because I’ve explained why. I don’t think we ought to be in the limelight. We’re just supposed to be the eyes and ears of the public, not a public figure.” He resumed walking.
“Yes, but when there is someone like yourself who has the unlimited time and resources to question public officials,” I argued, “I think they should be under some scrutiny, who they are and where they’re coming from. I think you would agree.”
“You don’t agree?”
“No. I’m just trying to perform for the public. I’m not wanting to be a figure of controversy myself.” He stopped at the bottom of a flight of stairs for a final word. “Besides that, I’m not controversial. It’s just the stuff that I cover happens to be.”
Originally published in Oklahoma Monthly magazine in 1979. Condensed and reprinted with permission in This Land: Fall 2016.