Sunday, August 25, 2013

Tulsa, Stillwater police departments refuse to release resignation letters of officers in trouble with the law

Tulsa police officials earlier this month refused to release to FOX 23 the resignation letter of an officer sentenced to 35 years for robbing Hispanic drivers during traffic stops.
Stillwater police in July refused to release to NEWS 9 the resignation letter of an officer charged with stealing prescription drugs from the department.
Both departments claim the Open Records Act doesn't apply to the resignation letters.
The Open Records Act says public agencies "may keep personnel records confidential [w]hich relate to internal personnel investigations including examination and selection material for employment, hiring, appointment, promotion, demotion, discipline, or resignation." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.7(A)(1))
But the resignation letters aren't part of the "internal personnel investigations." They are submitted by the employees.
The statute says, "All personnel records not specifically falling within the exceptions provided in subsection A of this section shall be available for public inspection and copying...." (§ 24A.7(B))
Because the resignation letters aren't specifically exempted, they must be available for public inspection and copying.
The statute also makes public "the records of any final disciplinary action resulting in loss of pay, suspension, demotion of position, or termination." (§ 24A.7(B)(4))
A 2009 attorney general opinion reiterated that once the investigation is complete and a final disciplinary action occurs, "the record(s) indicating that action must be available for public inspection and copying." (2009 OK AG 33, ¶ 29)
So if the police departments are correct that the resignation letters are part of the internal personnel investigations, then the resignation letters are the record indicating the final action and must be made available for public inspection and copying.
Public bodies also must consider that, given the intent of the Open Records Act, "disclosure is to be favored over a finding of exemption," the Oklahoma Supreme Court said in 1986. (Tulsa Tribune Co. v. Okla. Horse Racing Comm'n, 1986 OK 24, ¶ 22)
Or as a subsequent attorney general opinion explained, "The intent of the Act requires that questions of doubt as to the accessibility of government records be resolved in favor of access." (1988 OK AG 35, ¶ 3)
Interpreting the statute so that resignation letters of government employees are secret is a stretch that wrongly favors exemption over disclosure.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
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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