Woodward, Okla. —
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Members of Oklahoma's Pardon and Parole Board pleaded not guilty Thursday to multiple counts of violating the state's Open Meeting Act.
The board's five members appeared with their attorneys before Oklahoma County Special Judge Russell Hall a day after District Attorney David Prater filed 10 misdemeanor counts that accused board members of violating the state law in 2011 and 2012. Hall told each board member to return to his court on April 18.
The board members — chairman Marc Dreyer, of Tulsa; vice chairman David Moore, of Edmond; Currie Ballard, of Langston; Richard L. Dugger, of Oklahoma City; and Lynnell Harkins, of Moore — made their initial appearances before Hall after going to the county jail, where they were fingerprinted and photographed by sheriff's deputies and posted $5,000 bond each, said defense attorney John Coyle, who represents Dugger.
"The people at the jail were very gracious," Coyle said. "They were very nice and helped us through this."
Hall called each board member up to the bench separately to fill out paperwork and enter pleas to the charges. Board members left the Oklahoma County Courthouse without comment following the brief hearing. But Coyle said Dugger and other board members are upset by the allegations.
"All of them are distressed, of course. Everyone believes they did not violate the law," Coyle said.
Coyle said Dugger, a former chairman of the Pardon and Parole Board who has 43 years of service to the state as a prosecutor and in other roles, "is sick about this." But Coyle said the charges will not affect how board members do their jobs.
"They're going to do what they've always done. It's their job," he said.
In effect since 1977, the Open Meeting Act requires meetings of public bodies to be open to the public and that the public be notified of the place and time of the meetings and what action will be considered. Violations are punishable by a fine of up to $500, a sentence of up to one year in the county jail or both.
Prater accused members of the part-time board last August of operating a secret parole docket and granting early parole to certain state prison inmates, including some who were not eligible for it.
Prater claimed that agendas prepared for various board meetings contained no notice of what the board planned to consider under agenda items called "docket modifications" and that the names of inmates they planned to consider for early parole were not made public in advance or identified anywhere on the meeting's agenda.
In one instance cited by Prater, a woman found guilty of manslaughter in 2008 was required to serve 85 percent of her 10-year sentence, or 8 1/2 years, before she would be eligible for parole under state law. Yet the victim's family was notified she was on the Pardon and Parole Board's docket in July — four years before she was eligible for parole.
"As alleged, the board was making crucial public safety decisions without giving the citizens of Oklahoma an opportunity to scrutinize its activity," Prater said in a statement that accompanied the charges. "In doing so, the board potentially re-victimized numerous victims and surviving family members by not giving them notice that the board was taking action that qualified the person who victimized them for early release."
Prater declined further comment Thursday.
A legal opinion issued by Attorney General Scott Pruitt's office in October said the board has the authority to recommend commuting, or reducing, the sentences of inmates required to serve 85 percent of their sentences before they are eligible for parole. The opinion said the governor also has the power to grant the commutations.