Prosecutors have evidence Pardon and Parole Board members were cautioned in 2011 that state law requires them to be specific on their public agendas, The Oklahoman has learned.
“Stop and think about what you would want to see,” Gay Tudor, then an assistant attorney general, told board members about their agendas. “People are going to want to know something about what's coming before you.”
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater is preparing to file misdemeanor charges against all five parole board members for alleged violations of the Open Meeting Act. His chief accusation is that the board illegally took up early release requests without proper public notice. Board members have denied wrongdoing.
“These public servants come from the most distinguished backgrounds and are of the highest integrity,” the board's defense attorney, Mack Martin, said Friday. “To accuse and prosecute them of willfully violating the Open Meeting Act is baseless and a waste of valuable resources.”
Tudor spoke to the parole board for about an hour in April 2011 about how to comply with the Open Meeting Act and Open Records Act. She said she gave similar training at other state agencies over the years upon request.
She worked at the attorney general's office from May 1, 1989, to April 30, 2011.
At the 2011 meeting, Tudor told the parole board the agenda is “a really big thing.”
“How specific do you need to be?” she said. “Enough that a person who is walking by your place … and they look at it and (say) ‘What's that? Oh, that's the agenda for the Pardon and Parole Board. Hmmm. Well, they're going to be hearing from so and so and so and so about such and such. I want to be there.' That's the theory. That there's enough there for somebody to have an idea.”
She also told board members: “We do have some sometimes who try very hard to make the agenda as nebulous as possible so that people maybe don't have an idea. Because, there are times when things are coming along that are maybe a little bit more controversial, and they don't necessarily want to alert everybody.”
The maximum punishment for violating the Open Meeting Act is a year in the county jail and a $500 fine.
To get a conviction, prosecutors must prove the Open Meeting Act was “willfully” violated.
Aware of training
Prosecutors are expected to argue board members ignored the assistant attorney general's advice about their agendas. Prosecutors are expected to argue that is proof the board members willfully violated the law.
Tudor specifically told the parole board during the 2011 training session that prosecutors can prove a violation is willful “if you knew or should have known and you didn't do it right.”
“And see, now, you know,” she said as board members laughed. “You're stuck.”
Prater said Friday, “We are very much aware that this training occurred and that has been a part of our investigation.”
Charges could be filed as early as this week against the board members — Marc Dreyer, of Tulsa; Currie Ballard, of Langston; Lynnell Harkins, of Moore; David Moore, of Edmond; and Richard L. Dugger, of Oklahoma City.
Prater in August complained to the parole board that it illegally took up early release requests about 50 times since the start of 2010. He complained the board hid from the public the initial consideration of these requests by describing it on agendas only as “docket modifications.”
“The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board's violations in this matter are egregious, aggravated and a clear attempt to operate in secrecy, outside of public scrutiny,” Prater wrote.
Sparking Prater's concern was a commutation request involving a woman in prison for a drunken-driving death. Her request was put on hold after Prater complained.
Board members said they did not act in secret. They said the 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.
Prater in January offered not to file criminal charges against board members if they agreed to resign. All five rejected his offer.
Defending the board
Martin, the board's defense attorney, said Friday that parole board members received the same training on the Open Meeting Act “that every public board member receives from the office of the attorney general.”
“Could things have been done differently or better? Absolutely,” the defense attorney said. “And, in all honesty, changes have been made to improve notice to the public. On the other hand, was the law broken? Absolutely not. The procedures followed by this board are the same ones that have been in effect since the enactment of the first Open Meeting Act laws in 1959.”
The Oklahoma attorney general's office also is investigating the parole board.
“It's ongoing. It's continuing,” Attorney General Scott Pruitt said Feb. 28. “We'll see where the review of the records and facts take us. … It is a different type of investigation … different in the sense that we're simply investigating generally to determine whether steps were taken under the Open Meeting Act that were inconsistent with the letter of the law.”