A southeast Oklahoma town's refusal to fulfill an Oklahoma Open Records Act request for a settlement agreement with the former police chief caused concern with a district attorney and a state press association executive.
Quinton’s Board of Trustees members voted 3-2 during an Oct. 14 special meeting to accept the resignation of Lawrence “Larry” Ruiz Jr. — the now former police chief a Pittsburg County judge said isn't a reliable witness due to legal history involving dishonesty. The board also approved a settlement agreement with Ruiz — without disclosing anything about the agreement and did not fulfill the News-Capital's open records request for the document.
"The general rule is that local government should be transparent," District 18 District Attorney Chuck Sullivan told the News-Capital. He added some exceptions exist, but believes government should be transparent to the people it governs.
Oklahoma Press Association Executive Vice President Mark Thomas said that unless a specific state statute is cited upon the denial of a records request, then the denial is a “willful violation” of the law.
According to Title 51, O.S. § 24A.17 (A), “any public official who willfully violates any provision of the Oklahoma Open Records Act, upon conviction, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be punished by a fine not exceeding $500 or by imprisonment in the county jail for a period not exceeding one year, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”
Quinton's board approved a motion to “authorize the mayor to execute the General Release and Settlement Agreement and to authorize issuance of the payment of the amounts set forth in the agreement upon fulfillment of Lawrence Ruiz of any obligations required of him.”
The News-Capital submitted a request Oct. 15 under the Oklahoma Open Records Act for a copy of the settlement agreement and Ruiz’s resignation letter.
A Quinton city official responded through the advice of attorneys that “there are terms and conditions that have to be met before agreement is final. Once they have been met, we may furnish them when requested” — and denied the request.
When asked what those terms and conditions were, the city official said she did not know and was told to give “no comment” on any further questions on the matter “until it's done.”
The city official said Ruiz’s final day as police chief was Oct. 14.
Sullivan said his office has not filed any charges during his tenure against a person for violating the Act — but said his office would charge somebody if the burden can be met.
He said with just like any other crime, his office has a burden to meet before any criminal charge arises from an alleged open records violation.
The DA also said the burden would not be met if a city official who receives bad advice from a lawyer violates the open records act.
“If a person is consulting with a lawyer in an attempt to not break the law and the lawyer tells them what the law is and the lawyer maybe is wrong, but tells that person and they follow that advice, how can I prove the intent?” Sullivan said.
Sullivan did say although consulting with an attorney could shield a person from possible criminal charges, it does not prevent a civil lawsuit to be filed against an alleged open records violator.
The Act continues to state any person denied access to records of a public body or public official “may bring a civil suit for declarative or injunctive relief, or both, but such civil suit shall be limited to records requested and denied prior to filing of the civil suit.”
According to the law, if the person who brought the lawsuit is successful, they “shall be entitled to reasonable attorney fees” but if the public body or public official successfully defends a civil suit and the court finds that the suit was clearly frivolous “the public body or public official shall be entitled to reasonable attorney fees.”
The law does however shield a public body or public official if a record that is covered under the act is released.
“A public body or public official shall not be civilly liable for damages for providing access to records as allowed under the Oklahoma Open Records Act,” the law states.
The Board of Trustees originally placed Ruiz on administrative leave with pay on Aug. 12 after a Pittsburg County judge ruled Ruiz lacks credibility as a witness due to legal history involving crimes of dishonesty.
A previous open records request by the News-Capital and fulfilled by town officials revealed Ruiz was paid $21.15 an hour.
Contact Derrick James at firstname.lastname@example.org