This story was updated to include a comment from Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s actions regarding his appointees to the Pardon and Parole Board have been “grossly improper” and the board’s commutation process was focused on speed over public safety, according to an Oklahoma County grand jury report (see below).
The grand jury, which wrapped up its work Thursday, said the Pardon and Parole Board lacked transparency when it decided commutation cases. It recommended the governor’s office and the District Attorneys Council devote full-time staff members to the board to monitor its actions.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater asked for the grand jury in October. Under the supervision of District Judge Don Andrews, it has met 17 times.
In December, the grand jury returned indictments of state Rep. Terry O’Donnell and his wife, Teresa, over his role in authoring legislation involving the resignation of tag agents when his wife was named as a tag agent in Catoosa. That case is pending in Oklahoma County and the O’Donnells have maintained their innocence. Terry O’Donnell stepped down from a top House leadership position in January and filed for reelection in April.
The grand jury said it ran out of time regarding other possible charges from the O’Donnell case and left it up to the district attorney’s office to determine if others should be charged. By law, county grand jury terms can’t be within 30 days of a major election. Oklahoma’s primary election is June 28.
The report largely focused on the Pardon and Parole Board’s commutation decisions from 2019 to mid-2021. It noted that the board’s processes have improved since a new executive director, Tom Bates, took over.
“The evidence also indicates that the overall push at the board was ‘volume’ over anything else, and ‘corners were cut’ and ‘processes were ignored’ in order to get the highest number of people onto the commutation dockets,” the report said.
The grand jury singled out the commutation case of Lawrence Paul Anderson, who first applied for commutation in January 2019 and was denied for being at a high risk to re-offend. Despite board rules forbidding applying again for three years, Anderson applied in August 2019, just seven months later.
“Despite being unlawfully re-docketed within the three-year period, which was clear from a cursory reading of the second application, Anderson was recommended for commutation,” the report said. “After his release, Anderson is alleged to have killed three people, cutting the heart out of one victim, as well as allegedly killing a small child.”
Anderson was charged in February 2021 with three counts of first-degree murder in Grady County. His case has been highlighted extensively by a “dark money” political action committee called Sooner State Leadership Fund, which has criticized Stitt’s commutation actions and his record on criminal justice reform.
Testimony to the grand jury indicated at least one member of the board’s administrative staff was aware of the Anderson case being docketed for commutation in error. But it wasn’t brought to the attention of the board or the governor’s office.
“Failure to notify the governor immediately of this error also prevented the governor’s office from denying the recommendation to commute Anderson’s sentence,” the report said. “A tragedy may have been prevented.”
Meanwhile, the grand jury criticized Stitt’s actions regarding his appointees to the Pardon and Parole Board and said “improper political pressure was placed upon some board members.” Without specifying when or which board members, the report said Stitt met with appointees as a group before their appointment. The meeting included discussions of upcoming votes on paroles, pardons and commutations, as well as the possible dismissal of the then-director of the agency.
While the report called Stitt’s actions “grossly improper,” it noted it had no legal authority to accuse the governor of official misconduct, which can only be done in impeachment proceedings.
“The governor of Oklahoma’s actions in this regard was not criminal,” the grand jury said in a footnote.
The governor’s office, which appoints three members of the five-member Pardon and Parole Board, called the grand jury report “the latest in a string of unfounded hit jobs by the Oklahoma County district attorney and other political insiders.”
“Oklahomans elected Gov. Stitt with the most votes in state history because they wanted a fresh set of eyes on all areas of state government, and he is carrying out the will of the voters by ensuring that board appointees are aligned with vision to protect the taxpayers, preserve public safety and root out any and all corruption,” said Charlie Hannema, Stitt’s chief of communications.
The grand jury said the board lacks objective criteria that would guide their commutation decisions and recommended “a panel of citizens be convened to discuss and promulgate objective criteria that should be considered in the commutation process.”
As well as the Pardon and Parole Board, the grand jury’s final report looked at how the Legislature polices conflicts of interests among its members. It recommended the House and Senate change their rules to make clear a member with a conflict declare their interests publicly and not vote on bills covering that interest. The grand jury said the Legislature should also adopt rules for conflict of interest statements. It suggested the attorney general or the Oklahoma Ethics Commission should be involved in those statements.
“We find that the substantial Constitutional barriers to legislator conflicts of interest are not subject to continual House or Senate scrutiny and enforcement, but apparently are left up to each individual legislative member to self-enforce,” the report said.
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.