During nearly every meeting since it began operation, the state Workers Compensation Commission discussed its budget, organization and other topics during executive sessions that are not allowed under the state Open Meeting Act, records show.
A review by the Tulsa World found the commission talked about issues that violated the Open Meeting Act in at least 11 out of 13 meetings since December. The commission released hand-written minutes of 11 executive sessions to the World late Thursday, following a report Wednesday by the Attorney General’s Office that the agency failed to abide by the Open Meeting Act’s requirements on executive sessions.
The commission redacted portions of minutes involving at least three meetings, though the Open Meeting Act does not state such redactions are allowed. The act states that if an agency holds executive sessions in “willful violation” of the law, any minutes of such executive sessions shall become public.
Rick Farmer, executive director of the commission, said in an email that the attorney general’s report “made it clear they did not find grounds for a ‘willful violation.’ This being the case, there is no entitlement to any records of executive session. Our release of the minutes was made as a show of good faith and in the interest of openness and transparency in government.”
The report by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office reviewed Open Meeting Act issues raised by a World investigation of the commission. The newspaper found the commission met with a vendor without public notice and held numerous executive sessions that did not appear to comply with state law.
Pruitt’s office has said the commission was given incorrect legal advice. An assistant attorney general who advised the commission left his job last week, but it is unclear whether the attorney was fired or resigned.
Large portions of minutes from a Dec. 11 executive session have been redacted. Records show the commission planned to discuss hiring an executive director, an executive assistant and administrative law judges.
After the executive session, commissioners voted to hire Farmer as executive director at a salary of $112,000 per year. However, minutes do not reflect any discussion of Farmer’s hiring or salary during the executive session.
Commissioners discussed numerous organizational issues during the executive session, including a memorandum of understanding with the Workers Compensation Court to share employees.
A law passed last year created the commission as an administrative system to handle injured workers’ claims. The current Workers Compensation Court, a judicial system, will operate for several years.
During a Dec. 17 executive session, the commission discussed its budget, sharing staff with the court and leasing additional building space, minutes show.
Records show that Brad Taylor, presiding judge of the Workers Compensation Court, and Michael Harkey, a former judge who now manages the court’s operations, attended the meeting.
“Taylor and Harkey agree w/budget and will support it,” the minutes state.
Minutes reflect that commissioners voted following the executive session to approve the fiscal year budget “as amended in earlier discussions.” It is unclear from the minutes what changed in the budget.
During a meeting Jan. 16, the commission agenda again listed an executive session to discuss hiring and sharing “specific employees” with the court.
However, during the session commissioners vented frustration about raises the court had given to some employees.
“No agreement when being manipulated behind scenes,” minutes state.
Minutes show that Commissioner Denise Engle stated: “Someone passing out money in raises. Blow them up in the media.”
Engle released a statement Wednesday that the minutes “reflect a phrase I used in reference to the manner in which the Court administrator acted counter-productively in giving raises to some favored staffers while excluding others just prior to handing the employees over to the new agency, the Workers’ Compensation Commission.
“It reflected my continued frustration at the unwillingness with the Executive Director and Chairman to deal with the matter in public. … Unfortunately, the record only shows a snippet of the statement and does not reflect the context.”
Records show 22 court employees received raises ranging from 3 percent to nearly 33 percent since the end of last year. Of those, seven employees were fired by the commission last month, records show.
On Feb. 20, Commissioner Bob Gilliland talked in executive session about the need to change state law dealing with injured workers’ claims to “do away w/extension.” Gilliland is an attorney who formerly worked for McAfee & Taft, a law firm that “worked hard behind the scenes” to pass the workers compensation law, according to its website.
In March, commissioners discussed “reducing trials” by contacting workers who did not have attorneys and urging them to agree to mediation.
In an April executive session, Chairman Troy Wilson discussed the need to set aside money for technology, furniture, carpet and other needs.
However, Farmer gave commissioners a “reminder to lay low until end of May” when lawmakers voted to approve the state’s budget.
During a June 19 meeting, commissioners discussed their budget, personnel needs and a possible supplemental budget request to hire additional employees. Several weeks later, the commission fired 16 employees who had worked for the court, citing budget shortfalls.
Agendas never listed the proposed terminations, though one agenda contained a list of nearly every court and commission employee. The Open Meeting Act allows agencies to discuss personnel matters involving specific employees during executive sessions, but agendas must list employees’ names or positions.
Pruitt’s report advises the commission to list the terminations on an agenda and cast a public vote. The law makes actions taken in “willful violation” of the act invalid.
Farmer noted that the commission’s minutes “are subject to personal interpretation. … They are one person’s on-the-spot, unpolished interpretation of the meeting.”
While the commission recorded open portions of its meetings, there are no recordings of executive sessions, Farmer said.
World Staff Writer Curtis Killman contributed to this report.