MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

February 1, 2013

Parole board spurns demand for resignations

Members face threat of charges of breaking Open Meeting Act

— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board rejected a prosecutor’s ultimatum that they resign or face possible misdemeanor charges for alleged violations of the state Open Meeting Act, an attorney for one of the members said Friday.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater in August accused the five-member board of violating the Open Meeting Act by operating a secret parole docket and granting early parole to certain state prison inmates, including some who were not eligible for it.

Prater gave members of the part-time board until Friday afternoon to resign to avoid possible charges. But defense attorney John Coyle, who represents board member Richard Dugger, said the board members believe they have done nothing wrong.

“Everyone is in the boat,” Coyle said. “These people haven’t willfully violated the law.”

Coyle said he informed Prater of Dugger’s decision to remain on the board.

“He was very gracious,” Coyle said. He said he hopes there is some way to address Prater’s concern about the board’s practices without the filing of criminal charges. Violations of the Open Meeting Act carry a penalty of up to one year in the county jail and up to a $500 fine.

“These are all really good people. It’s a thankless job,” Coyle said. “There’s got to be some way to find some middle ground.”

Prater did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

Last year, Prater sent a strongly worded letter to the board’s executive director, Terry Jenks, accusing the board of “willful, conscious and purposeful violations of the law” by providing no public notice that it would consider early parole for some inmates under vaguely worded agendas that the district attorney said violated “the letter and the spirit of the act.”

“Additionally, I find the board’s actions to be in deliberate disregard of Oklahoma’s Open Meeting Act,” the letter states. “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.”

In one instance, the prosecutor said 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 early.

Prater alleges the board violated the act 51 times in the last three years when it took up early release requests without proper public notice. The district attorney has said any actions by the board regarding early parole for the inmates are invalid and should be reversed, including taking improperly released inmates back into custody.

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.

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