Mary Fallin is being seriously touted in national circles as a possible running mate for Donald Trump. So it seems like a good time to remind the national press corps about her miserable record on an issue reporters of all political stripes should care about: transparency.
Crooked Hillary? Lying Ted? Meet Redaction Queen Mary. Recipient of the Golden Padlock Award. Architect of executive privilege. And the only two-time winner of Freedom of Information Oklahoma’s Black Hole award.
When it comes to letting the common people see their own records, Mary is indeed quite contrary.
Gubernatorial candidate Mary Fallin signs an open government pledge, promising to “support at every opportunity the public policy of the State of Oklahoma that the people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government.”
Fallin appoints Steve Mullins, a former federal prosecutor who once worked for the Department of Justice, as her general counsel. Some reporters covering Fallin’s administration detect a shift away from complying with the spirit of the Open Records Act.
Mullins invokes a sweeping, unwritten authority on Fallin’s behalf called “executive privilege.” Mullins says the law allows Fallin and other members of the executive branch to withhold records related to their “deliberative process.” Fallin claims the privilege is necessary to shield records of political discussions underlying her decisions on state policy.
In plain language, she’d rather people not know the actual reasons for actions she and her cabinet members were taking, especially on politically charged issues such as the death penalty, criminal justice reform or rejecting the Medicaid expansion. (Compared to nearly all other states, Oklahoma executes a lot of people, locks up a lot of people and has a fairly high number of uninsured people.)
Perhaps Fallin’s concern is warranted.
In emails about a criminal justice reform act that Fallin had already signed, her staff frets over appearing soft on crime.
From a Tulsa World story: “A Fallin aide expressed concern that President Barack Obama favored prison reform, too. The governor’s chief of staff writes in reply: ‘Lovely.’ ”
“My thought is why further tie ourselves to liberal corrections reforms groups?’ ” Chief of Staff Denise Northrup writes in an email discussion about whether Oklahoma should participate in a joint European-American prison study.
Fallin backs away from those efforts to reverse the state’s burgeoning prison population and the state does not fund the program she had already approved. Oklahoma ranked #3 in the nation in per capita prison population the following year.
The ACLU and The Lost Ogle sue Fallin over her refusal to release 100 pages of emails related to the decision to reject a state health insurance exchange. Fallin had invoked executive privilege in withholding the emails.
A judge later rules the governor may withhold documents by invoking executive privilege but must provide a log of the documents withheld. Fallin hails the ruling as a victory while advocates of transparency say it’s a major blow to openness.
That same year, the former director of Fallin’s Tulsa office, Wendy Gregory, sues in order to obtain her own personnel file from the governor’s office. It’s unclear why Gregory had to sue, as the state Open Records Act clearly states:“An employee of a public body shall have a right of access to his own personnel file.”
In a deposition filed with the lawsuit, Mullins describes a process in which records requests appear to be slow walked through the governor’s office, taking many months or even more than a year to fulfill.
Fallin and Mullins win a dubious honor from Freedom of Information Oklahoma Inc. — the Black Hole award — which recognizes officials who oppose dissemination of public information. The award cites their fight to create executive privilege shielding records created by Fallin and 14 members of her cabinet.
Fallin wages a public records battle with parents of children killed and injured when their school in Moore collapsed on them during the 2013 tornado. The parents sue the governor to get records about storm shelter construction after months of delays by Fallin’s office.
The mother of Christopher Legg, killed in the EF-5 twister that hit Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary, said: “It isn’t a stretch to believe that Fallin doesn’t want to do the right thing because it draws attention to failure to help Oklahomans. She has now refused to release emails regarding her decision to not accept Medicaid funding, build school storms shelters and protect nursing home residents.”
Fallin hires outside counsel to fight the parents’ attempts to obtain records related to the storm shelter issue.
Eventually, Fallin supports a compromise measure that allows school districts to increase their debt levels to build shelters if they wanted to. Critics say the proposal will benefit just 25 out of 545 school districts.
For the second year in a row, Fallin is named recipient of the “Black Hole Award” by Freedom of Information Oklahoma Inc. FOI’s blog notes Fallin received the award for her “persistent stonewalling on requests for public records.”
Fallin is also named a winner of the 2014 “Golden Padlock Award” by Investigative Reporters and Editors, an international group devoted to investigative journalism.
“Under the law, details that could explain the gruesome last minutes of the inmate’s life and seek accountability remain hidden from public knowledge,” the organization states in its press release.
Along with the Tulsa World and supported by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, I file a lawsuit against Fallin over her refusal to respond to our Open Records Act request for records related to the botched 2013 execution of Clayton Lockett.
The news isn’t all bad. Fallin signs two pro-transparency bills approved by lawmakers that year and vetoes an attempt to shield records kept by universities.
As a result of our execution records lawsuit, Fallin’s office releases 42,000 pages of records, heavily redacted, while continuing to withhold others. Though Fallin’s emails and other records were requested just days after the botched execution, Fallin’s office provided no documents as a result until 17 months later.
The lawsuit contends Fallin and DPS have violated the law’s duty to ensure a “prompt and reasonable response.” Fallin’s attorneys, meanwhile, argue that if a request has not been granted, a citizen cannot sue for what is in effect a denial of records
The records released in this initial batch raise questions about who is really running Oklahoma’s execution chamber: the governor (at an NBA game when the Lockett debacle occurred) or her general counsel, Mullins?
Sources tell The Frontier it was Mullins who did online research about whether the state could substitute an execution drug at the last minute. It’s unclear who approved use of the substitute drug, as both the governor’s office and the attorney general’s office claim they were not aware of the switch. (Lethal drugs must conform to a pre-approved protocol that is subject to review by federal judges.)
Mullins is one of three state officials to step down as the multi-county grand jury in Oklahoma City investigates problems in how the state is carrying out the death penalty. DOC Director Robert Patton and Anita Trammell, director of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, also resign. The grand jury is expected to release its report soon on the lethal drug snafus.
Meanwhile, attorneys for the governor and Department of Public Safety continue to withhold records on the execution and fight the lawsuit seeking full disclosure.
On May 2, attorneys file a new, amended version of the 2014 lawsuit by the Tulsa World and myself against the state seeking execution records. An Oklahoma County District Court judge orders Fallin and DPS to produce privilege logs listing all of the records or portions of records the state has withheld or redacted from more than 100,000 pages produced in our lawsuit so far.
My hope is to pursue this lawsuit until we receive a judgment that Fallin and DPS have violated the state Open Records Act by slow playing our requests and others. If the law’s “prompt and reasonable” language means nothing, then Fallin and other state officials can effectively deny citizens’ requests for records by never answering them.
In public statements on the issue, Fallin’s spokesmen generally point out how many thousands of pages of documents her office has released to citizens.
It’s true there have been thousands of pages.But if those thousands of pages are largely the same few meaningless documents copied over and over, with the important parts of documents redacted or withheld, and it takes a lawsuit and a year-long wait to get them, is that really transparency?
We at The Frontier don’t know what Fallin actually thinks of these issues because we don’t get to talk to her. In nearly six years of writing about our governor, I’ve never been granted an interview. (In her defense, many public officials aren’t exactly eager to talk to me.)
Robert Nelon, an Oklahoma City attorney representing the plaintiffs, points out “there are still many unanswered questions about the Lockett execution.”
He said the plaintiffs are committed to pursuing the lawsuit two years later “because the passage of time does not diminish the public’s need for answers or the government’s obligation to provide them.”
Fallin has enthusiastically endorsed Trump and welcomed talk that she could be a possible running mate for the presumptive Republican nominee. In addition to the state’s massive budget hole, dire school funding crisis, manmade earthquakes and other serious issues facing our state, members of the national media might want to examine Gov. Fallin’s thin record on upholding the people’s right to know what their government is doing.