DA accuses state Pardon and Parole Board of willfully violating Open Meeting Act to secretly release ineligible inmates
The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board willfully violated the Open Meeting Act with vague agendas that failed to notify the public that it would consider releasing inmates early, including some who were ineligible because they had not served mandatory sentences, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater announced Wednesday.
"I determined that the Board has no authority to pardon, commute or otherwise modify an inmate's sentence that was subject to a statutory restriction on early release. I also found that even the most diligent member of the public who had an interest in carefully monitoring a specific inmate, would not have known or anticipated the actions of your Board," Prater said in a letter to the board's executive director.
"The violations of the Open Meetings Act are willful, conscious and purposeful violations of the law," Prater wrote.
"Additionally, I find the Board's actions to be deliberate disregard of Oklahoma's Open Meeting Act," he wrote. "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 told The Oklahoman that he is considering filing charges against the board members.
Violating the statute is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in the county jail and up to a $500 fine.
In his letter, Prater also said the early release of inmates in violation of mandatory sentencing guidelines should be considered invalid as violations of the Open Meeting Act.
He called on the executive branch to take action to reverse the invalid decisions.
"Obviously, this will include taking inmates who have been released back into custody," he wrote.
Prater described a procedure during board meetings in which the members would vote to place inmates on a docket called a "Pre-Docket Investigation," or "PDI," for consideration of early release.
Prater said the Pre-Investigation Docket was "NEVER" mentioned on the 2.5 years of board meeting agendas that he reviewed.
"It was IMPOSSIBLE to determine at what point in the Pardon and Parole Board meetings the 'PDI' docket was being considered and voted on," Prater wrote.
He said a review of board meeting minutes revealed "an obscure, recurring Agenda item ... 'Docket Modifications - J.D. Daniels.'"
"Notably, no reference was made to a related docket or website containing a docket for consideration to be 'modified,'" Prater said. "The 'Docket Modification' Agenda items gives NO notice to the public of what business the Board will be conducting under this item."
The Pardon and Parole Board also didn't notify district attorneys of "unqualified inmates" being placed on the "PDI" docket for early parole consideration, Prater complained.
The board's vague agendas essentially prevented the public from knowing that inmates would be illegally considered for early release, Prater concluded.
"A member of the public who was interested in monitoring a specific inmate would not begin checking the parole dockets until the time drew near for the legal consideration of the inmate," Prater wrote. "Outside of Board members, no person had the ability to determine what inmate would or could be the next fortunate soul to emerge from the darkness of the 'Docket Modification' portion of the Board's business with an undeserved opportunity to attain an early and illegal release.
"This result illustrates why compliance with the Open Meeting Act is vital to public awareness and governmental transparency. At the least, the public deserves the opportunity to observe a public board violate the the law in the light of day," he wrote.
Prater also accused the board members of "gross partiality" for placing "certain inmates on the early parole docket without any apparent policy or procedure."
"Though the patent violations of the Open Meeting Act are condemnable, it is the apparent presence of patent partiality, operating in the darkness of Board meetings that is equally disturbing," he wrote. "This practice of partiality could not have survived had the Board complied with the Open Meeting Act."
Prater is clearly angry over the board's secrecy, perhaps in part because district attorneys were kept in the dark. Now, he knows how frustrated many Oklahomans become when public bodies heedlessly violate the Open Meeting Act.
But unlike the rest of us, Prater can do something to stop such violations. By prosecuting the Pardon and Parole Board, he can send a message to other public bodies that they must comply with the spirit and the letter of the Open Meeting Act.
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.