Sunday, March 10, 2013

FOI Oklahoma's Black Hole Award goes to Gov. Fallin

Gov. Mary Fallin's unprecedented use of "executive privilege" to hide records from the public earned her FOI Oklahoma's annual Black Hole Award, the organization announced Saturday.
Two newspapers and a state lawmaker received FOI Oklahoma's top open government and First Amendment awards Saturday during the organization's Sunshine Week Conference at the University of Oklahoma.
FOI Oklahoma also announced winners of its third open government-themed essay contest for college students. First place went to Joey Stipek of the University of Oklahoma. The second- and third-place winners were Oklahoma State University students Colton Scott and Andrei Dambuleff. The students won cash prizes of $300, $200 and $100.
The Marian Opala First Amendment Award was presented to the Enid News & Eagle, while the Ben Blackstock Award went to the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise.
State Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, was presented the Sunshine Award for opening the doors of secrecy at the Department of Human Services.
In contrast, Fallin and her general counsel, Steve Mullins, garnered the Black Hole Award, which recognizes someone who thwarts the free flow of information in Oklahoma.
Fallin and Mullins have claimed that her communications with her 14 Cabinet members are protected by executive and deliberative process privileges under the state Constitution. Their claims are unprecedented for an Oklahoma governor.
Our state courts have not recognized these privileges. Likewise, the state Open Records Act doesn’t screen the governor’s records from public scrutiny.
Some of the records could shed light on why Fallin refused to create a state health insurance exchange. Others are related to implementing reforms to the corrections system.
The Enid News & Eagle was recognized for its successful lawsuit supporting the public's First Amendment right of access to court records sealed by Judge Ray Linder. The records involved the perjury case of Enid attorney Eric Edwards.
For nearly four months, the newspaper, its attorney Michael Minnis, and reporters James Neal and Cass Rains fought with Edwards' attorney, Stephen Jones, over the manner in which the records were sealed and removed from public view.
In ordering the records opened, Judge Richard Van Dyck cited the News & Eagle’s First Amendment right to publish the news as the newspaper found it.
Van Dyck said the public’s interest in knowing the truth was greater than the need to keep the records sealed, which would only "heighten suspicions."
"The public needs to know what its elected officials are up to," Van Dyck said. "The public has a right to know."
The Opala Award is named for the late Marian P. Opala, the former Polish freedom fighter who served 32 years on the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
The Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise was presented the Blackstock Award, which recognizes a non-governmental person or organization that has fought for the public's right to know.
Video footage of an incident in which two local police officers were accused of assaulting a hospital patient was released because of a lawsuit by the newspaper.
Two police officers were charged with assault and battery from the September 2011 incident involving a combative patient at a local hospital. One officer was convicted and fined $1,000. The other was acquitted.
A third officer's employment was terminated, and a fourth officer was placed on administrative leave but later reinstated.
Nelson was presented the Sunshine Award, which goes to a public official or governmental body, for spearheading efforts to reform the Department of Human Services' tracking and reporting of child deaths and near-deaths.
Over time, DHS had developed a closed system and oversight was difficult. Nelson pounded away at unacceptable reports and transparency issues concerning DHS. He and other legislators had to stand firm when federal Health and Human Services officials said Oklahoma could lose millions in federal funding if it opened certain records.
Nelson kept asking why other states could disclose the information and still receive federal funding. Eventually, the HHS agreed Oklahoma could release the data without losing funding.
This was the sixth year that FOI has presented the Sunshine, Blackstock and Black Hole awards.
FOI Oklahoma is a statewide organization that for 23 years has promoted openness in government and First Amendment education. The organization counts among its members journalists, librarians, educators, government officials and private citizens. It also sponsors an annual First Amendment Congress for students.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
Lindel Hutson
Past President, FOI Oklahoma
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

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Differing interpretations of law and policy are welcome. Personal attacks and character assassinations will be rejected.