FOI Oklahoma bestows Black Hole award on judge who closed courtroom, records of billionaire oil baron’s divorce trial

An administrator with the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, a state lawmaker and a persistent University of Oklahoma student won FOI Oklahoma’s top awards Saturday at the organization’s Sunshine Week program. The Black Hole recognition, for damaging access to public information, went to Judge Howard Haralson for turning his courtroom into a black hole during an important divorce case, that of Oklahoma oil magnate Harold Hamm.

William R. Young, administrator of the office of public information for the ODL, was presented the Marian Opala First Amendment Award. State Rep. Bobby L. Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, received the Sunshine Award, which goes to a state agency or public official that has shown a commitment to freedom of information.

Joey Stipek, former online editor of The Oklahoma Daily, won the Ben Blackstock Award for his persistence and determination that led to OU and Oklahoma State University providing public access to student parking citations. The award goes to a member of the public and is named for the retired Oklahoma Press Association’s executive director.

Young received the award named for the late Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala. It recognizes individuals who have promoted education about or protection of the individual rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Young has been a strong supporter of FOI for many years and has helped rally librarians around the state to help promote public access.

He has been a driving force behind FOI Oklahoma's annual First Amendment Congress for high school students. Young also administers an essay contest for students who write about the First Amendment and how it protects and affects daily life in the United States.

Cleveland, who represents House District 20 that includes Cleveland, Garvin, McClain and Pottawatomie counties, was the author of 2014 legislation that compels the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Athletic Association (OSSAA) to comply with the state Open Meeting and Open Records acts. The OSSAA also must conduct an annual financial and compliance audit in accordance with the Oklahoma Public School Audit Law and conduct a performance audit every five years.

The OSSAA is a "quasi-government organization" regulating extracurricular activities for Oklahoma schools grades seven through 12, including the makeup of athletic districts, playoffs and student transfers and eligibility. About 70 percent of its funding from member schools comes via ad valorem tax dollars paid by Oklahomans.

Stipek received the Blackstock Award for spearheading the effort to get OU to release records he maintained should have been public, but which both OU and OSU claimed were protected educational records.

Stipek, a member of FOI Oklahoma, sued OU in 2013. The FOI Oklahoma Inc. board of directors awarded him a $2,000 grant in September 2014 to support the lawsuit.

In November, the OU Daily’s editorial board announced it was joining Stipek’s lawsuit. Later that day, OU President David Boren ordered the university to abandon its defense of the lawsuit and to release the records. A day later, OSU announced it would begin releasing its student parking tickets.

Haralson, an Oklahoma County special judge, kept the general public and press out of all but three days of the 10-week divorce trial of billionaire oilman Hamm.

Reuters, a British news agency, reported that Hamm rewrote the company’s history behind the closed doors of the courtroom – a move intended to stave off a divorce payout of nearly $1 billion that provided to be the largest in U.S. history. The payout has been appealed.

In a motion to force Haralson to open the courtroom, Reuters argued that the civil trial directly concerned “one of the most significant, publicly traded companies in the U.S. oil market, the leadership role, achievements and stake of its founder and majority owner, and one of the wealthiest, most influential and politically active businesspersons in the country.”

Haralson gave no compelling reason for why the courtroom should be closed, thereby ignoring the public’s First Amendment and common law rights of access to trials.

Haralson also sealed – without a hearing or issuing written orders – practically every document, including trial transcripts. The Oklahoma Supreme Court refused to intervene, but two justices criticized Haralson for violating the Open Records Act by not following the statutorily required protocols for sealing court documents.

“Imposition of an almost total denial of access to the records in the case … through an agreement by the parties cannot be justified,” wrote Justice Noma Gurich.

FOI recognizes its Black Hole winner but does not present an award.

This was the eighth year FOI has presented its awards.

FOI Oklahoma is a statewide organization that for 25 years has promoted education of the First Amendment and openness in government. The not-for-profit organization’s membership includes librarians, journalists, government officials and private citizens.