Gov. Mary Fallin says she may withhold emails and other documents related to her decision to reject federal health care money, saying such communication is privileged.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation declines to release information about a Seminole teenager charged with murder, saying the records are confidential.
The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board discusses the fate of several inmates without public notice, saying it doesn't consider such discussions illegal.
Several recent controversies are casting a spotlight on the state's nearly three-decade-old open records and open meetings laws and highlighting the ongoing tension between government-transparency advocates and public officials regarding how those laws are interpreted.
Advocates say the Oklahoma laws, designed to keep citizens informed and hold governments accountable, face constant threats from public officials too quick to limit access, prosecutors too reluctant to prosecute those who violate the law and an ever-growing list of exemptions that places large amounts of government information outside public purview.
“The history of the United States has been in favor of openness in government, and the reason for that, among others, is it establishes trust, or it diminishes trust if the government is so secretive nobody knows what it's doing,” said Michael Minnis, an Oklahoma City-based First Amendment attorney.
But Minnis and other transparency advocates argue that the trend in Oklahoma has been to place more limits on public access to information that helps explain the inner workings of government.
Government accountability groups routinely rate Oklahoma among the worst states when it comes to transparency, citing among other things a long list of exclusions, a lack of enforcement and very little recourse for appeal.
The Center for Public Integrity gave the state a grade of F last year in public access to information, noting broad exemptions granted to the Legislature and law enforcement.
“Exemptions to the state Open Records Act have combined with lax enforcement and underfunded ethics agencies to create a recipe with potential for corruption,” the report found.
State and local officials respond that in many cases, more government records than ever are open to public inspection.
In December, several of Fallin's cabinet members provided examples of dozens of ways agencies are making more information available, including placing more about government spending, bidding, tax collection and other data on searchable websites.
Last month, Sunshine Review, another open-records advocacy group, which has been critical of the state, gave Oklahoma a grade of B for its government website transparency.
The governor's legal counsel told The Oklahoman in November that Fallin is the “most transparent” governor in the state's history, and her spokesman last week said the recent Sunshine Review report reflects that.
“(The grade) is considerably higher than previous years and one of the better grades nationally,” spokesman Alex Weintz said. “While the governor hopes to improve the rating even further in the future, this year's grade illustrates the progress the state is making.”
Memories differ over what brought to a head the push for an Oklahoma open records law in the mid-1980s.
Some say it was a Moore police chief who barred access to department records after his own arrest for drunken driving. Others recalled it was when reporters began looking into a doghouse built at the Governor's Mansion by former Gov. George Nigh.
“It was a climate of no access, it was a climate of ‘never mind, you can't have it,' and that was it,” recalled Bob Sands, a public television reporter who was then chairman of an Oklahoma news broadcasters organization. “Everything was closed. You tried to get a document about something, and they'd just stare at you.”
The original draft of the open records bill was four pages long and called for all records that concerned public money and government bodies to be open, Sands said.
But special interest groups, such as the Oklahoma Municipal League, county commissioners and law enforcement agencies, sought exemptions.
Today, the list of attorney general opinions, court precedents and state-authorized exemptions is longer than the Open Records Act itself, said Mark Thomas, the Oklahoma Press Association's executive vice president.
Every year, special interest groups push new bills designed to further chip away at the acts. This year, Thomas said he is tracking a list of bills seven pages long that could affect open records or open meetings. Among them are bills that would exempt teacher evaluations, loosen the rules that allow public officials to meet in private and that would make some contracts between government and private industry confidential.
Still, Thomas believes lawmakers more and more are embracing the concept of government transparency, saying it now is a constant topic of discussion in the statehouse.
“Before, they didn't care,” he said.
Rep. Josh Cockroft, R-Tecumseh, has proposed a bill that would establish an open records “czar” for the state — a one-stop shop through which all records requests and responses would flow.
Rep. Jason Murphey, House Government Modernization Committee chairman, is pushing a bill to make state lawmakers subject to the act.
“Some lawmakers view the ability to have some of these discussions not available to the public as a luxury; I take the other viewpoint in thinking that … transparency is really important when you're discussing the merits of legislation,” said Murphey, R-Guthrie.
In cases where governments refuse to release records or meet in violation of the law, the only practical recourse is to go to court, open-government advocates say.
Violation of the laws is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine and a year in jail, but advocates complain that district attorneys often are reluctant to pursue such cases against fellow elected officials.
“They don't file when they are pretty obviously cases to file on,” said Joey Senat, an Oklahoma State University professor and open government expert. “When it's obvious and they won't do anything … the public is left pretty helpless.”
Media outlets, sometimes the only entities with deep enough pockets to pursue lawsuits in such cases, often are reluctant to do so, both because of their expense and the fear that an unfavorable court ruling could lead to further weakening of the laws.
“Litigation is costly in dollars, but can be more costly in eroded laws,” said Kelly Dyer Fry, editor of The Oklahoman and vice president of news for OPUBCO Communications Group. “We will not hesitate to spend the money to stand up for openness in government. However, any time you enter a courtroom, you have to be mindful of the possibility of losing ground.”
In some cases, government agencies reconsider their initial stance to deny records or access.
The OSBI eventually released the records on the Seminole teenager accused of murder.
Gov. Fallin's office is still deciding which of thousands of emails and other documents regarding her decision not to participate in the federal health care program known as Obamacare she might release.
And the Pardon and Parole Board continues to argue with Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, saying while it can be more transparent, it did nothing wrong.
“This is about the public's right to run its government,” Senat said. “We ended up with some that don't want the public to know what they're doing.
“It comes down to an argument of who gets to run the government, and ultimately the government belongs to the people.”