Oklahoma openness laws lack enforcement

Advocates and citizens complain that local district attorneys and police throughout Oklahoma rarely prosecute violations of open records and meeting acts, which are misdemeanors.
BY BRYAN DEAN bdean@opubco.com Published: March 16, 2012
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Mitsi Andrews was convinced that she witnessed a crime in Stillwater, but local police told her they didn't know enough about the law to investigate, and the district attorney's office wouldn't talk to her about it.

If it were any other misdemeanor — possession of marijuana or driving under the influence, for example — Andrews could have counted on police and the district attorney to look into the matter. But getting authorities to enforce the state's open records and meeting acts is often a futile effort, as Andrews discovered.

Willfully violating the state's openness laws is punishable by a fine of up to $500 and a year in jail. But police and prosecutors rarely pursue charges, leaving private citizens to file lawsuits if they think a public official is wrongfully denying them access.

“There is a law on the books, but there is no route for the average taxpayer to hold anyone accountable for illegal actions,” Andrews said. “You can go the civil litigation route, but you have to commit to thousands of dollars and years of litigation.”

Although the Oklahoma attorney general's office is responsible for advising state agencies on openness issues and writing opinions when lawmakers have questions about them, local district attorneys are tasked with filing criminal charges.

In Andrews' case, she was denied records by Stillwater Public Schools that she believed were clearly open under state law.

“I first went to the police department and they said they weren't sure how to handle it and suggested I file a civil case or go to the DA's office,” Andrews said. “Then I went to the DA's office and they said they don't talk to anyone but attorneys and told me to go back to the police.”

Police eventually told her they didn't know enough about the open records law to investigate.

Andrews finally got some of the records after going to Freedom of Information Oklahoma Inc. for help. The nonprofit advocates for open government and put pressure on the schools to release the information.

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