INMATES become parolees largely through the work of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board. Members of this board now face the prospect of becoming inmates themselves because a prosecutor refuses to accept their good-faith effort to let more light shine on board proceedings.
What Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater has done in filing charges against parole board members will have a chilling effect on the willingness of citizens to serve on public boards for little or no remuneration. The misdemeanor charges can be seen as putting public servants on notice that open meetings and open records aren't optional but mandatory. That's good. But demanding the resignation of parole board members as a condition for waiving charges wasn't justified in this case.
Ironically, if convicted the members could stay on the board. So the same people Prater says have “willfully” violated the Open Meeting Act might still be serving on a board operating under new procedures because of their equally willful determination to follow the law.
“It is difficult to imagine,” Gov. Mary Fallin said, “men and women who are leaders in their communities wishing to serve in these positions — the vast majority of which draw no salary — if they are constantly in fear of being charged with a crime while making a good-faith effort to follow the law and the recommendations of their paid legal advisers.”
This is not a straw man argument. Finding people to serve on any board is difficult. Finding them to serve on a board that requires hundreds of hours of study and meetings each year is especially difficult. Yet the names of these five parole board members were likely unknown to most Oklahomans until Prater began his investigation last year. Lest you still don't know their names, here they are:
Currie Ballard, a historian.
Marc Dreyer, a Baptist minister.
Richard L. Dugger, a former district attorney.
Lynnell Harkins, a former judge.
David E. Moore, a former Secret Service agent.
This is not a typical lineup of the usual suspects in criminal activity.
We applaud the DA's diligence in taking seriously the laws that keep public meetings and records open and accessible. In fact, we applaud Prater for virtually everything he's done in office. He's been a fair and courageous prosecutor not inclined to let politics dictate his decisions. In this situation, however, Prater is wrong.
Despite changes in board procedures that have been promulgated or are under way, he demanded that Fallin start over with a new slate of members following the resignations of the incumbents. When those resignations didn't happen, he filed charges that carry a maximum punishment of one year in jail and a $500 fine.
There is little possibility that any of the five will spend time in jail. The fine amount is trivial. But being charged with a crime takes a toll that's unwarranted in this case. Prater might argue that violating the law should take a toll and that no one should be exempt from prosecution. We don't disagree.
He might say that only the resignations or criminal convictions will hit home the message that public board members are required to conduct business transparently. If that's the argument, we disagree. The message was sent last summer. Board members got it. They began making changes that will result in a more transparent system for how parole applications are processed.
Their reward for this? Take a hike or take a perp walk! And now Ballard, Dryer, Dugger and Harkins face 10 misdemeanor counts. Moore faces nine.
Who benefits from this?