Oklahoma Parole Board Members Charged with Violating Open Meeting Act

Oklahoma Parole Board Members Charged with Violating Open Meeting Act

By Christopher Zoukis

Oklahoma City District Attorney David Prater announced
on March 13, 2013 that all five members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board
(“Board”) had been charged with criminal violations of the state’s Open Meeting
Act in connection with some 51 early release requests that the Board considered
but did not list on its public agendas since 2010.

The Board members were charged with misdemeanor
violations of the Open Meeting Act, an offense punishable by up to a year in
jail and a $500 fine for each willful violation pursuant to 25 Okla. Stat. §
313, 314. Additionally, a willful violation of the Act can result in
invalidation of actions taken during a meeting not in compliance with the Act.

Image courtesy koco.com

Board Chairman Marc Dreyer, 66, and members Currie
Ballard, 54, Richard L. Dugger, 74 (a former district attorney), and Lynnell
Harkins, 73, were charged with 10 counts of willful violation of the Act – one
for each month they voted on early release requests after April 2011, when a
state Assistant Attorney General held a training session on open meeting
requirements for the Board. Board member David E. Moore, 65, was charged with
nine counts.

District Attorney Prater issued a news release that
alleged the Board had conducted business in a way “designed to hide potentially
unpopular actions from the citizens it serves.” In a letter to the Board in
August 2011, Prater warned that the Board’s failure to provide public notice of
its early release deliberations was “egregious, aggravated, and a clear attempt
to operate in secrecy, outside of public scrutiny.” In January 2013, Prater
gave the Board members a chance to resign before charges were filed – an offer
they rejected.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Ballard said at the time.
“Until Christ Jesus calls me home, I’ll be on the parole board.”

Prater began investigating the Board in 2009 after he
learned that a woman convicted of manslaughter in a DUI case was being
considered for parole four years early. That investigation led to press
attention and scrutiny from the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office, but no
charges. However, at the April 2011 training session with Assistant Attorney
General Gay Tudor, the Pardon and Parole Board was informed that keeping an
accurate public agenda was a “really big thing.” Tudor specifically told the
Board a violation of the Open Meeting Act is “willful” within the meaning of
the statute “if you know or should have known and you didn’t do it right.” As Board
members laughed, she told them, “And see, now, you know, [so] you’re stuck.”

Sources cited in news reports claimed the
investigation into the Board was part of an “orchestrated political effort” to
restrict the Board’s powers after voters approved a constitutional amendment in
2012 that eliminated gubernatorial approval as a requirement for parole for
non-violent offenders. The amendment was intensely opposed by law enforcement
officials and district attorneys in Oklahoma.

The Board has since suspended its practice of allowing
members to recommend a prisoner for early release and to place such prisoners
on a hearing docket that is not made public. According to Prater, the Board’s
initial considerations of such early release requests were listed on public
agendas simply as “docket modifications.” Presently, the Board includes the
name of any prisoner being considered for a parole hearing on its public
website, and prosecutors and the public are allowed an opportunity to comment
on the proposed release.

Governor Mary Fallin, who appointed three of the
Board’s present members, said the decision to bring criminal charges will have
a chilling effect on other appointees. “It is difficult to imagine men and
women who are leaders in their communities wishing to serve in these positions
… if they are in constant fear of being charged with a crime while making a
good-faith effort to follow the law and the recommendations of their paid legal
advisors,” she stated.

Then again, is it too much to ask that those appointed
to such positions of public trust follow the law, as other citizens are
expected to do?

Following their arrests, the Board members were
fingerprinted and had their mug shots taken at the Oklahoma County Jail, then
were released on $5,000 bonds. They remain on the Board and continue to conduct
parole hearings.

Sources: Associated Press, www.newsok.com,
www.tulsaworld.com, www.news9.com, www.ardmoreite.com

(First published by Prison Legal News and used here by permission)