Published November 9, 2015 by Cary Aspinwall (The Center for Public Integrity)
Oklahoma often pays lip service to the principle of accountability for its public officials and that’s one important reason the state gets a failing grade, and ranks 40th, in the State Integrity Investigation, a study of transparency and accountability by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.
One case that serves to prove the point: in Pottawatomie County, Okla. five couples filed for divorce on July 6, 2015, but only one was allowed to keep all the details — even their names — from being included in public records.
Country music superstars Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, who own homes and businesses a couple of counties to the south, were allowed to file their July divorce proceedings under seal, with only their initials appearing on an online court records filing system.
Days before he retired from the bench, Pottawatomie County Associate District Judge John Gardner sealed the couple’s divorce filing at the request of their attorney, despite the fact that divorce filings are public records under Oklahoma law. A separate law mandates any protective order sealing records “shall be public,” but the judge didn’t file one until after media outlets complained.
The public’s right to access information under Oklahoma’s laws continues to be chipped away, and the state lags behind others on measures that could hold judges and other public officials accountable for such behavior.
Oklahoma earned a score of 59, an F — one of 11 states to receive a failing grade in the State Integrity Investigation. In 2012, Oklahoma scored a D on the State Integrity Investigation, ranking 38th. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the questions and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
In addition to examining the accountability laws as written in each state, the survey also measures the difference between the laws on the books and how they’re actually implemented. The probe determined that several states had a substantive “enforcement gap,” and Oklahoma’s ranked among the most significant.
“People with influence — whether it’s money or political influence — use that influence in a way where the average citizen does not get the same protections,” said attorney Aaron Stiles.
Stiles is a former Oklahoma state representative and the author of a 2014 law requiring judges to narrowly tailor sealed records “so that only the portions of the record subject to confidentiality are sealed and the remainder of the record is kept open.”
Stiles maintains that the judge who sealed divorce records for Lambert and Shelton violated the law in a blatant example of “cronyism.” But the only way to challenge the decision in Oklahoma is for a citizen to appeal to a higher court, at his or her own expense.
Oklahoma’s lowest scores on the State Integrity Investigation were in the areas of judicial accountability and access to information.
“It’s not fair for the rich and influential people to have their records sealed while the plumber down the street doesn’t have the right to have his records sealed,” Stiles said.
Gardner, the judge, disputed Stiles’ characterization, noting that anyone can seek to have court records sealed if they have been victims of certain crimes, for example. In this case, he didn’t want paparazzi hanging out on the steps of the courthouse in Shawnee, he said.
“I did it to preserve the peace and dignity of the entire courthouse,” Gardner said.
Oklahoma earned a category score of 48 on judicial accountability, in part because state law makes it optional for judges to explain their rulings.
The state has no legal process in place to evaluate the performance of Oklahoma judges. Although there is a body that has the power to discipline judges, its proceedings are entirely confidential.
Often, judges simply retire or resign before being disciplined or removed from office. Gardner retired a few days after he sealed the famous country singers’ divorce decree.
Furthermore, the “plumber down the street” may have a more difficult time accessing routine public records he is entitled to under Oklahoma law, the State Integrity Investigation revealed.
Though the state’s 1985 Open Records Act guarantees that “the people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government,” the reality in Oklahoma is that the government frequently doesn’t turn over information without a fight.
The state earned a score of 33 regarding access to information.
Oklahoma does not make financial disclosures of lawmakers and state officers available online for public inspection, and the state Ethics Commission is currently considering requiring fewer officials to fill out disclosure forms annually.
Gov. Mary Fallin’s office won a broad exemption under the Open Records law after a satirical news website sued to challenge her claims of “executive privilege” regarding access to records related to her decisions regarding the Affordable Care Act.
Another news outlet sued the governor’s office in 2014 after it was denied records related to the state’s actions in a botched execution.
News media and attorneys reported that they often wait longer than six months for routine records requests to be filled by the governor and Attorney General’s office, despite the law’s requirement for such requests to be filled in a “prompt and reasonable” manner.
“The effect is that the press and public don’t know how and why their leaders are making these decisions until well after the decision is already made, and the consequences are already realized,” said Joe Wertz, a reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma and board member of Freedom of Information Oklahoma.
Open government advocates say average citizens in Oklahoma often wait longer for their records requests to be filled and are asked to pay steep fees for records. Denials can be challenged in court, but at a citizen’s own expense (though judges can award legal expenses to the prevailing party in a records lawsuit).
Oklahoma also lacks a central agency to monitor records requests or enforce its access to information laws, part of several contributing factors to its significant “enforcement gap.”
Often, even requesting a simple log of an agency’s pending records requests, its fiscal spending or an executive’s calendar can take longer than most consider “prompt and reasonable.”
A fiscal bright spot
The independence and openness of Oklahoma’s State Auditor and Inspector’s office earned the state its highest category score in the State Integrity Investigation, an 85.
During the period of study, audits revealed fraud and waste across a broad spectrum of public bodies. The state auditor is an independently elected state official whose power is established by the constitution, limiting opportunities for political interference.
Citizens have the power to request audits of any state, city or county office through petition drives, as the citizens of the city of Henryetta did in 2014.
Among other findings from that audit, the State Auditor and Inspector’s office reported Henryetta city officials had failed to comply with most of the Open Records Act requests by its citizens.
This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. It is part of State Integrity 2015. How do each state’s laws and practices deter corruption, promote transparency and enforce accountability? Click here to read more stories in this investigation.