D.A. Drops Charges Against Oklahoma Parole Board Members
by Christopher Zoukis
Five members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board (Board) will not face trial for criminal violations of the state’s Open Meeting Act, after signing a statement acknowledging that they had conducted business without listing and publishing it on the agenda of the Board’s meetings over a 14-month period.
As previously reported in PLN, the five members of the Board had been charged in March 2013 with violating state law by voting on prisoners’ early release requests without proper public notice at meetings between May 2011 and July 2012. The Board members included Marc Dreyer, Currie Ballard, Richard L. Dugger, Lynnell Harkins and David Moore. [See: PLN, May 2013, p.30].
The Open Meeting Act requires notification of the time and place of meetings of public agencies and of the business that will be considered at the meetings; violations of the law can result in a $500 fine and up to a year in jail.
When the charges were first announced, Oklahoma City District Attorney David Prater issued a news release alleging that the Board had conducted business in a manner “designed to hide potentially unpopular actions from the citizens it serves.” He had previously warned the Board that its actions were “egregious, aggravated, and a clear attempt to operate in secrecy, outside of public scrutiny.”
The charges claimed the Board members had expedited the release of prisoners who had not yet served the minimum requirement of their sentences; Prater said the Board illegally placed the names of 50 prisoners on meeting agendas to consider them for early release. He stated some of the prisoners were convicted of murder, child molestation and other crimes that, by state law, required them to serve a minimum 85% of their sentences. Some were serving life sentences and at least one was serving life without parole.
Before filing charges, Prater had offered the Board members a chance to resign – an offer that was quickly rejected. “I’m not going anywhere,” member Currie Ballard said at the time. “Until Jesus Christ calls me home, I’ll be on the parole board.”
In January 2014, after the Board members signed a one-page statement publicly accepting responsibility for violating state law, Prater said the issue should be settled quickly: “With the board’s acknowledgement that their actions violated the Open Meeting Act, I anticipate a resolution of this matter in short order.”
The statement maintained that the Board members thought they were doing nothing wrong. “The board was acting in good faith at the time, and believed that our actions were in accordance with the law. In retrospect, the procedure did not adequately promote the goal of insuring public notice before any action was taken by the board.”
The statement echoed sentiments expressed by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin when the charges were first announced.
“The governor doesn’t think there’s any malicious intent in anything the Pardon and Parole Board was doing,” said Alex Weintz, Fallin’s communications director.
Top aides for Fallin had initially responded to Prater’s accusations by saying he was confusing parole hearings with the Board’s consideration of commutation requests. The Board didn’t list the names of prisoners being considered for commutation but did announce their names during monthly meetings. The Attorney General’s office had issued an opinion in October 2012 that said the Board could consider commutation requests submitted by prisoners before they were eligible for parole.
Despite the Board members’ written acknowledgement that they had violated state law, no plans to replace any of the members have been announced. Of course, most people who break the law are not allowed to sign a statement admitting their wrongdoing and have the charges against them dropped. Most prosecutors would instead consider any such statement to be a confession, and proceed with the criminal case accordingly.
Sources: www.newsok.com, www.okcfox.com, www.tulsaworld.com, www.washingtontimes.com, www.koco.com
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