Former Iowa Board of Parole members say decisions to release prisoners made illegally

Published: Mar. 8, 2023 at 10:45 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Two former members of the Iowa Board of Parole said the state agency made decisions to release prisoners illegally, according to documents our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team received.

Kathleen Kooiker and Sheila Wilson said three alternatives made decisions to release or not release inmates from prison. Iowa law requires at least one permanent member on each hearing panel. Kooiker, who is a retired magistrate judge, said she wasn’t reappointed to the board as retaliation after she notified the Governor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office of the error in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed in February.

Our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team found the Iowa Department of Corrections and the Iowa Board of Parole allowed a repeated sex offender with a mandatory minimum to receive work release with parole 17 years early. According to Iowa law, inmates with mandatory minimums aren’t eligible for parole.

TV9 reached out to the Governor’s Office and the Iowa Board of Parole about the claims made by two former board members, but didn’t hear back by publication.

Annie Thomas, who was the victim in the case, said officials with the Department of Corrections told her the illegal parole was a one-in-a-million mistake. She said she was suprised illegal paroles occurred multiple times.

“My jaw kinda dropped and my eyes got wide, like this can’t happen,” Thomas said. “...If it happened to me, it can happen to anybody.”

Kooiker, who is looking for damages worth around $100,000, said she became the former Board of Parole Chair Helen Miller was using three alternatives to make decisions on inmates’ ability to receive parole in September 2019 in the lawsuit. She said she called the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, who instructed Kooiker to call the Department of Corrections and stop all orders or paroles then have board members write a letter to each offender with a parole decision made by an illegal panel.

Kooiker claims the board became short-staffed because Miller refused to make a parole decision and turn the Board of Parole’s chair position into a public relations position. She also claims Miller ordered a permanent board member to add their vote to the decision to make it seem like the original decision was legal.

Kooiker said she wrote a letter to Governor Kim Reynolds asking for a meeting to discuss the issues twice, but never received a response. Sheila Wilson, who is also a former member of the Iowa Board of Parole, also said the board used three alternates to illegally review cases and interview offenders. She said the chair didn’t care who interviewed offenders, as long as it wasn’t her.

“She cared nothing about complying with our budget and told us we could have two panels convene at the same time, increasing the taxpayers’ expense,” she wrote to Governor Reynolds in February 2021.

Alternate members get paid by the day, according to the state salary book. Our i9 Investigative Team found the salaries for alternative members increased by over 300% from Fiscal Year 2019 to 2020, which is when the illegal paroles due to illegal hearing boards occurred.

According to annual reports from the Iowa Board of Parole, the number of case reviews and interviews the board performed went from 13,385 to 14,502 during the same time period.

Wilson, who urges Gov. Reynolds to reappoint Kooiker to the board, also said the board didn’t have a permanent “African American representation reviewing cases for the 26% of African American incarcerated offenders.” Wilson said a Black man was appointed as an alternative however state law requires at least one person on the board is part of a minority group.

Sonya Heitshusen, who is a spokesperson for the state auditor, said the Auditor’s Office for the State of Iowa was not notified about these claims by board members or the Governor’s Office.

Thomas said these illegal paroles are “alarming” because dangerous individuals are potentially being released into the community.

“There needs to be somebody overseeing this,” Thomas said. “It’s just common sense it has to be handled in a different way, I guess, there has to be somebody responsible.”