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.
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
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login