Woodward, Okla. — TIM TALLEY
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma County's chief prosecutor filed misdemeanor charges Wednesday against all five members of the state Pardon and Parole Board that accuse them of violating the state's Open Meeting Act.
District Attorney David Prater filed 10 counts against each board member that allege they violated the state law by conducting business not published and listed on the agenda of their meetings between May 2011 and July 2012.
The Open Meeting Act, in effect since 1977, 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.
In August, Prater accused members of the part-time board 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 in 2008 of manslaughter 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.
Members of the board — 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 — have denied wrongdoing.
An attorney for the board members, Mack Martin, called them "hard-working public servants" and said they have done nothing wrong. Martin said the board's agenda and parole consideration dockets have been handled the same way by previous members of the board since 1959.
"These are not people out there trying to hide something," Martin said.
In a statement, Gov. Mary Fallin defended the board's members, describing them as "community leaders and public servants who deserve to be treated with respect." Fallin said members of the board have responded to her demand to resolve the issues Prater raised and that "the problem is now being solved."
The governor also expressed concern about the chilling effect the criminal case could have on others who are interested in public service.
"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 advisors," Fallin said.
Prater filed the charges less than six weeks after members of the board rejected his ultimatum that they resign or possibly face misdemeanor charges. In a statement that accompanied the charges, Prater said he tried to resolve issues with the board "in a fair and equitable manner" before they were filed.
"Public safety is a core function of our government," Prater's statement says. "As alleged, the board was making crucial public safety decisions without giving the citizens of Oklahoma an opportunity to scrutinize its activity. 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."
Attorney General Scott Pruitt's office issued an opinion In October that said the board has the authority to recommend commutations for 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.