By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports
The Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole has been consistently breaking the rules for decades. “That’s the way it has been done for as long as the staff can remember,” said Ashley Dowell, the commission’s executive director.
The rules in question are not complicated. “The decision and supporting documents regarding a commutation will be filed with the Secretary of State,” reads the Idaho statute on clemency hearings. It’s equally straightforward on pardons. “The decision and supporting documents regarding the decision to grant or deny a pardon will be filed with the Secretary of State.”
The Secretary of State’s office is the body tasked with making the decisions and documents available to the public. “As a public agency, transparency is paramount,” said Parole Commissioner Lisa Growette Bostaph in an email to Idaho Reports. “Those processes provide necessary transparency about our decision-making as commissioners.”
The commission has only been turning over documents related to pardons and commutations they approved, and not always promptly. In response to an inquiry last week, Dowell told Idaho Reports, “We determined that there had been a historical agreement between the Commission of Pardons and Parole staff and the Secretary of State’s staff.”
The agreement was to not turnover documentation for pardons and commutation hearings when they decided to deny a pardon or clemency.
Lisa Mason, the person currently responsible for these documents in the office of the Secretary of State, was unaware of this agreement when talking to Idaho Reports earlier this month.
Former Secretary of State Ben Ysursa told Idaho Reports “I can’t remember any such agreement.”
“We never entered into an agreement,” said Miren Artiach, the former deputy secretary of state responsible for these documents. “We never would have entered into an agreement contrary to the rules.”
Dowell says the commission has maintained records that have not been turned over to the Secretary of State at the commission office. “Generally, those records are retained for ten years, but it varies,” said Dowell.
The commission’s problem with handing over materials, however, dates back far longer.
“I worked with them for 40 years,” said Artiach. “There was always a problem with getting those documents.”
That means 30 years of Idaho pardon and commutation decisions and records may be gone.
Dowell is new to her director position. “Executive Director Sandy Jones began the process of making the commission actually transparent: bringing the backlog of minutes up to date, instituting audio recording of all hearings, shepherding in the use of decision guidelines by commissioners, explicitly and consistently stating reasons for grants and/or denials in decisions, and expanding contact with victims,” said Bostaph. “Executive Director Dowell has begun to further those initiatives in her short time, thus far, by ensuring compliance with the open meeting law.”
Many of these practices in question came from Olivia Craven, a previous director. Both Ysursa and Artiach expressed frustration with their interactions with Craven regarding pardons and commutations.
“Even when we did receive the correct documents there was usually a significant lag time,” said Artiach. “On one occasion the commission was several years behind schedule before eventually dumping three years of documents in our office.”
The Secretary of State contacted the governor about the difficulty they were having acquiring these records. “We had a come to Jesus moment with Olivia Craven about record keeping,” said Ysursa. “We thought it was unconscionable not to have the gold certificate for someone who went through this process.”
On at least one occasion, the Secretary of State received documents only signed by Director Carven rather than the commissioners, according to Artiach.
The Secretary of State has no authority to compel the commission staff to turn over the documents; neither do the actual Pardon and Parole commissioners. The governor appoints the Director. Commissioners and the Secretary of State have no input on the Director position or their staff unless the governor inquires.
When people were unable to find documents or discovered the problem existed, “they often used our office as an excuse when we had never received the documents, to begin with,” said Artiach.
Dowell is not passing the blame to the Secretary of State. “Upon reviewing that practice, the commission will be working with the Secretary of State to provide all documents related to pardons, commutations, and restoration of firearms to the Secretary of State,” said Dowell.
“We do not oversee processing and business operations or the Executive Director,” said Bostaph. “If the commission office is not in compliance with an administrative rule, they need to change that.”
“We will be in compliance moving forward,” said Dowell. “I can’t comment on whether we were in compliance before.”