Oklahoma County sheriff's refusal to release jail-death records garners Black Hole recognition

A long-time library executive, the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters and an assistant Tulsa County district attorney were named recipients of FOI Oklahoma’s annual awards this year. Oklahoma County Sheriff P.D. Taylor received FOI Oklahoma’s Black Hole recognition for refusing to release records The Oklahoman said could shed light on how a dozen inmates died in the Oklahoma County jail in 2017.

Kay Boies, who led the Oklahoma Library Association as its executive director for 34 years, received FOI Oklahoma’s prestigious Marian P. Opala First Amendment Award.

The Ben Blackstock Award recognizes a non-governmental person or organization that has shown a commitment to freedom of information. It went to the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters for its long and successful fight for the release of the Joe Mixon video from the city of Norman.

Doug Wilson, an assistant Tulsa County DA, stopped the Tulsa County Commission from conducting an apparent illegal executive session. For this, he received the Sunshine Award, which recognizes a government official or governmental body that has shown a commitment to freedom of information.

The awards were presented April 28 during FOI Oklahoma's gubernatorial debate at the University of Central Oklahoma’s Constitution Hall.

Boies has served on the FOI Oklahoma board of directors since 2001. She has spent many years on the planning committee for its First Amendment Congress. This annual event emphasizes to high school students the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.

The OLA counts among its duties the defense of libraries against book bans and other censorship. In 2006, for example, Boies spoke against a bill by then-state Rep. Sally Kern that would have required public libraries to place books with homosexual content into special sections from which minors would be barred.

The Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters was awarded the Blackstock Award for fighting successfully for release of the Mixon video by the city of Norman. The tape shows the former OU running back punching an OU coed in a Norman restaurant.

The broadcasters and their attorney, David McCullough, last year’s winner of the Opala Award, took the case to the state Supreme Court.

The court upheld the principle that under the state Open Records Act, the public is entitled to the copy of a surveillance video depicting the cause of the arrest. This ruling also affirmed that an arrest occurs when a person is restrained by police or submits to the custody of police.

In 2016, FOI Oklahoma bestowed its Black Hole recognition on the city of Norman for refusing to release the tape.

Wilson received the Sunshine Award for stopping Tulsa County commissioners from conducting an apparent illegal executive session.

The commission had put on its agenda an executive session to discuss pending litigation. The agenda didn't list the litigation as it was required to do. What commissioners really wanted to do was discuss hiring an attorney as an independent consultant to handle lawsuits.

After Wilson researched the question, he agreed that the executive session should not occur. The county struck the executive session from that meeting and conducted the public discussion correctly the following week.

As a private attorney, Wilson served on the FOI Oklahoma board of directors and won several open records lawsuits.

In contrast, the Black Hole recognizes a government official who thwarted the flow of information to the public. FOI Oklahoma designated Taylor for this recognition because he refused to release emails and other records that The Oklahoman said “could show how department officials responded to inmate deaths and identify measures they may have taken to correct any problems that led to the incidents."

Taylor said the documents aren’t among the law enforcement records that jail officials must provide under the Open Records Act. The statute, however, does not prohibit the release of the records.

Taylor was acting sheriff when he won a special election in September. He retired from the Oklahoma City Police Department in January 1997 and joined the sheriff's office the next day. He served as undersheriff for 14 years until being named interim sheriff following the retirement of John Whetsel.

FOI Oklahoma is a statewide organization that for nearly 30 years has promoted education of the First Amendment and openness in government. This was the 11th year for the awards.