Parole Board probe -- On ice | Arkansas Blog

Friday, May 19, 2006

Parole Board probe -- On ice

Posted By on Fri, May 19, 2006 at 12:16 PM

Why is the governor's office refusing to release the state parole board's internal investigation of a matter relating to the recently resigned parole board member Larry Zeno?

We don't know. But we can give you a bit more information on an earlier investigation involving Zeno.

We made an FOI request for a State Police investigation related to Zeno, closed early in 2005 without charges. The substance was whether Zeno had suggested to inmate Tommy Parker in 2004 that, in return for his favorable vote on Parker's clemency application, Zeno wanted to be able to buy a one-carat diamond at a low cost from the inmate's father, a wholesale jeweler. The inmate never said Zeno made a specific proposition, but Parker told State Police investigators that he felt at one point that Zeno wanted to get a $4,000 or $5,000 ring for $1,000 in return for the clemency vote. Later, the inmate said, he wasn't so sure about Zeno's intentions. Parker's father said Zeno had also talked to him about buying a diamond, immediately after a private meeting Zeno had arranged with inmate Parker.

The investigation was closed Feb. 15, 2005, because, according to an investigator's memo, "establishing probable cause for a criminal act is improbable." The file doesn't reflect that investigators talked to Zeno

The State Police investigation followed an internal Correction Department investigation of the proposed diamond deal. The deal was uncovered during the monitoring of another inmate, Clayton Smith. Smith, it so happens, talked of not only Parker's reputed diamond deal in a letter to a girl friend but also wrote (in monitored mail) about having contacts with the governor's office that he hoped would lead to his own clemency. Curiously, it seems to us, the governor's office was advised by the Correction Departmen of this inmate's statements and supplied with copies of his letter and telephone tapes of Parker before the internal investigation was concluded. (A spokesman told us, by way of explanation, that the governor's offices is routinely notified of allegations against Correction Department employees and gubernatorial appointees.)

Whether Zeno's resignation is related in any way to this matter is unknown. One source says the file that the governor's office is keeping secret pertains to a different matter. The governor said on AETN last night, according to a Democrat-Gazette account, "The thing we don't want to do is to have premature or unsubstantiated information that at this point has no factual confirmation."

We think information -- even if deemed unsubstantiated -- about a public official who's tendered an unexplained resignation should be aired when investigations are completed. The  law demands it and sunshine increases public accountability.

Given the earlier episode, Huckabee might  have reason not to want to talk to about this particular political appointee. At a minimum in the 2004 matter, Zeno created an unhealthy appearance if, as all investigators believe, he talked about purchasing a diamond from the family of an inmate with business before him. Inmate Parker was paroled in December 2005. Inmate Smith remains in prison.

Parole and clemency are messy. Connections count. A parole board member or governor may make a favorable decision because he credits the integrity, based on personal knowledge, of the person making a recommendation or the inmate himself. But exposure of the process sometimes leave the appearance of special pleading and influence peddling. Ask Bill Clinton.

We've asked the governor's office for a copy of the report it's withholding related to Zeno. We don't think it constitutes a "working paper," the exception to the FOI Act that the goverenor's office has claimed in keeping it secret. We've also asked for comment on the  2005 State Police investigation of Zeno and references in the file to the governor and his staff. We've received no response.

We called Zeno. He was cordial, but said, "I don't have any comment about anything."


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