The five current members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board were accused Wednesday in misdemeanor charges of illegally voting on inmates' requests for early release without proper public notice.
The board acted in a way “designed to hide potentially unpopular actions … from the citizens it serves,” Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said in a news release after filing the charges.
Board members Wednesday again denied wrongdoing.
“These hardworking public servants don't deserve what has occurred,” said the board's defense attorney, Mack Martin.
Gov. Mary Fallin quickly criticized the prosecutor's decision and said she supported the board members. She said the filing of the charges will have a chilling effect on state government.
“As governor, I have appointed approximately 900 men and women to agencies, boards and commissions. In 2013, I will be appointing hundreds more,” she said.
“It is difficult to imagine 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.”
Open Meeting Act
All five board members are charged with misdemeanor violations of the Open Meeting Act. They are expected to surrender to the jail Thursday morning.
Parole board members for years have taken their first votes on early release requests during a part of their meetings described on agendas as docket modifications.
Prater specifically alleges in the criminal charges that board members willfully violated the Open Meeting Act by doing so. He alleges they cast votes on a convicted drug dealer, a killer and other inmates “knowing that those matters were not listed on the board's published agenda for that meeting day.”
“The board was making crucial public safety decisions without giving the citizens of Oklahoma an opportunity to scrutinize its activity,” Prater said in his news release. “In so doing, the board potentially … re-victimized numerous victims and surviving family members by not giving them notice.”
Charged with 10 misdemeanor counts are board Chairman Marc Dreyer and board members Currie Ballard, Richard Dugger and Lynnell Harkins.
Charged with nine misdemeanor counts is board member David Moore.
The prosecutor only charged the board members for every month they voted on early release requests after April 2011 when they received training on the Open Meeting Act. He said he chose to limit the cases that way “out of an abundance of fairness.
Moore was not present during one of the votes
During the training session at the April 2011 meeting, Gay Tudor, then an assistant attorney general, told the parole board the agenda is “a really big thing.”
She cautioned board members that their agendas needed to be specific enough that people have an idea what will be discussed at their meetings. She explained to the parole board that the Open Meeting Act can be willfully violated “if you knew or should have known and you didn't do it right.”
“A willful violation doesn't require malice or anything like that,” she said.
She made the point again when one board member asked, “Do you have to prove intent?” She answered, “Just willful, if you knew or should have known, and, see, now you know. You're stuck.”
Prater first complained last August to the parole board. He complained then that it illegally and secretly took up early release requests about 50 times since the start of 2010.
Sparking Prater's concern was a commutation request involving Maelene Chambers, who went to prison in 2008 after pleading guilty to first-degree manslaughter for a drunken-driving death. She was not yet eligible for parole.
Her request and others were put on hold after Prater complained.
Board members said they did not act in secret. They said the docket modification step that Prater complained about only determined whether an inmate got on the docket of a future meeting.
Board officials said the name of any inmate who made it on to a future docket would appear on the board's website. Prosecutors and the public then could object to any early release.
Earlier offer rejected
Prater in January offered not to file criminal charges against board members if they agreed to resign. All five rejected his offer.
Prater said under his proposal board members would have stepped down two or three at a time so the parole board could continue to operate while everyone was replaced.
The board members still can serve while awaiting trial. They next meet on Tuesday. Even after a conviction, they would not have to step down, defense attorneys said.
Dreyer's attorney, Clark Brewster, said, “The policies that Mr. Prater has been complaining about have been in place for 20 years. They were in place at time when former Attorney General Susan Loving was the chair of the board. … They have been told that they're not doing anything that is illegal.”
Dugger's attorney, John Coyle, said, “Dugger has given most of his life to public service. This is not the reward that he expected.”
Fallin said she urged the board last year to make improvements because of Prater's concerns. “I am happy to say the board responded — overhauling its website and pursuing a series of changes aimed at improving transparency. In short, a problem was identified; solutions were offered; the problem is now being solved,” she said.
Board members have talked repeatedly about creating a new website and making other changes to be more transparent since last August. However, several have not occurred. The new website, for instance, still was not accessible Wednesday.
The maximum punishment for a violation of the Open Meeting Act is a year in the county jail and a $500 fine.