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Oklahoma wildlife officials refuse to release former director's severance agreement

Oklahoma's attorney general urged a state agency to make public a severance agreement involving its former executive director.
Janelle Stecklein
Oklahoma Voice
Oklahoma's attorney general urged a state agency to make public a severance agreement involving its former executive director.

Oklahoma attorney general urges commission to reconsider decision to keep it secret.

A state agency contends that Oklahoma taxpayers are not entitled to know the terms of a severance agreement for its former director who abruptly resigned nor how much public money he will receive as a result.

Citing a provision of the state’s open records law that gives a public body “the sole discretion” to keep personnel records confidential that deal with “internal personnel investigations,” the Department of Wildlife Conservation denied Oklahoma Voice’s request for a copy of the agreement between J.D. Strong and the agency’s governing commission.

The agency also refused to reveal how much the commission plans to pay Strong until after the funds have been disbursed.

The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office penned the denial letter because it provides legal advice to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and its governing body, but Attorney General Gentner Drummond on Tuesday said the record should be public.

“As the Attorney General, I believe that openness and transparency should be the default approach for state government,” Drummond said in a statement. “I do not support the decision to keep secret the severance agreement, and I would urge the Commission to reconsider.”

The Tulsa World previously reported that Strong will receive $169,341 in severance pay. The funds would come from the Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Lifetime License Trust Fund.

The commission met behind closed doors for nearly three hours on Dec. 6 before voting publicly to accept Strong’s resignation and approve a severance agreement. They did not disclose the terms of that agreement.

Oklahoma Voice verbally requested a copy of the severance agreement at the meeting, before filing an open records request for the agreement along with details about how much Strong was to be paid a day later.

Joey Senat, an Oklahoma State University associate professor who specializes in Oklahoma’s open records laws, said the reason cited for the denial indicates Strong was under investigation. If that’s the case, the public needs to know that along with why a governing body would pay a severance agreement in that instance.

“I don’t know why the agency’s keeping it quiet, but it doesn’t bode well for the public that they’re keeping this a secret,” Senat said. “If you’ve agreed to pay somebody, if it’s been signed, and if you’ve agreed to do it, then tell the public now what you’ve agreed to do.”

Oklahomans also deserve to know how much severance pay Strong will receive before it’s disbursed, he said.

“The idea that they’ll tell us the money after they pay the money is sort of disingenuous,” Senat said. “It doesn’t give the public any chance to know beforehand and give any feedback on that agreement.”

He said state law may allow an agency to keep some records confidential but doesn’t require it. He said the agency should release the severance agreement to comply with the spirit of the law.

Senat said lawmakers two years ago changed open records laws to give public bodies sole discretion over some record releases, but quickly realized that wasn’t a good idea. They unsuccessfully tried to undo that last session.

“We have the right to know what our tax dollars are used for,” said Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa, of the denial. “That’s ridiculous.”

If there’s a provision in state law that gives agencies discretion to withhold records like severance agreements, lawmakers may need to look at changing that, she said.

At the meeting, Strong declined to comment on his resignation, pointing instead to a joint statement the agency planned to distribute at the end of the meeting. He referred additional questions to the agency’s communication’s department. He did not return a message Tuesday seeking comment.

In the statement, Strong said he’d decided to step down after over 31 years in state service. He’d served as agency director since 2016. He described the decision as “bittersweet” and said he wanted to “take advantage of a couple of exciting new opportunities in the works.”

Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, said there was never any indication that Strong had been looking to move on, and from all appearances he enjoyed the job and was doing a good job.

“I don’t know if there was something in his employment contract that said that he would get paid, or if this is some quiet acknowledgement that he was let go for reasons that were not entirely legitimate,” Bennett said. “Why else would you be giving someone six figures to move on other than it being some type of consolation prize?”

He said taxpayers deserve to know why their public officials are reportedly paying someone six figures to resign, and his constituents want transparency surrounding government decision-making.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

Janelle Stecklein is editor of Oklahoma Voice. An award-winning journalist, Stecklein has been covering Oklahoma government and politics since moving to the state in 2014.
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