JUSTICE

Missouri Parole Board Member Played Word Games At Hearings

A former state legislator is accused of sneaking key words into inmate hearings to get points in a secret game to "lighten the mood."

JUSTICE
A guard stands behind bars at a prison. — REUTERS
Jun 09, 2017 at 3:47 PM ET

Employees of the Missouri Department of Corrections’ Division of Probation and Parole are accused of having too much fun on the job, playing dress-up and word games during hearings that determined offenders’ fates.

A November report from the state’s DoC Office of the Inspector General, which was released by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center of St. Louis on Thursday, detailed games one member of the parole board played with another employee during hearings. Don Ruzicka, a former state representative who was appointed to the parole board when his term expired in 2012, was named in the report as the main offender, along with an analyst whose name was redacted.

“We just thought it would lighten the mood and change it up,” the analyst told Inspector General Amy Roderick, according to the report.

Ruzicka and the analyst are accused of livening up hearings by coordinating their outfits and sneaking song lyrics and certain words into questions. They kept score of how many times they said the word or phrase, and double points were awarded if the offender also said the word or phrase. According to recordings of hearings from June and July 2016 that were quoted in the report, the analyst said “hootenanny” four times to the apparent delight of Ruzicka, who “laughed out loud.” The analyst was later heard whispering, “I got four,” to Ruzicka.

Other words they are believed to have chosen for the game include “platypus,” “armadillo,” “egg” (and derivations such as “egging and “egged”), “biomass,” and “manatee.” In what appeared to be a step up in difficulty, certain song titles were also chosen, such as “Peggy Sue,” “Hound Dog,” “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” “Soul Man,” “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight,” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”

The words or phrases were often clumsily inserted, confusing some and angering at least one offender. The report also says Ruzicka and the analyst seemed preoccupied with coming up with ways to fit the words into their questions and weren’t giving the hearings their entire attention. They frequently whispered encouragement to each other and laughed when one of them used a phrase.

When confronted about the accusations, Ruzicka said multiple times that he conducted a “thorough and complete hearing.” He echoed that sentiment when he was asked how he thought saying, “He ain’t nothing but a hound dog,” to describe a man convicted of sex offenses was relevant or appropriate to the proceedings. Asked why he coordinated his outfits with the analyst, Ruzicka admitted to a “Men In Black” theme day.

“[It was] just another one of those things,” said Ruzicka, who laughed, according to the report.

The analyst was more willing to admit that he was playing a game and accept responsibility for his behavior. Roderick recommended that Ruzicka and the analyst be found to have violated a governor’s executive order and DoC policy regarding the conduct of state employees, but left the matter to the chairman of the parole board and the chief state supervisor to address “as they deem appropriate.” Roderick also recommended “enhanced training” for employees who told her that they knew what Ruzicka and the analyst were doing but did not report it because of the men’s positions.

The Division of Probation and Parole did not respond to Vocativ’s request for comment.

A 2015 report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch claimed that critics of the governor-appointed, seven-member parole board said it “operates almost entirely in secret” and, in the last few decades, tends to employ former legislators.

The MacArthur Justice Center noted that Ruzicka is still a parole board member and conducted hearings as recently as two weeks ago, so whatever discipline he received, if any, does not appear to have had a major impact on his position or his duties.

Ruzicka did not respond to Vocativ’s request for comment.

The MacArthur Justice Center is calling on Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens to kick Ruzicka off the parole board.

“It is shameful and outrageous that after an internal investigation, reports to the highest level of the Parole Board, and undisputed findings that Ruzicka literally played games with legal hearings he was supposed to be supervising – that this man is still allowed to decide upon the course of people’s lives,” Mae Quinn, the director of MacArthur Justice Center, said in a statement.