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Mike McKee, Pete Lawrenson

Montana Board of Pardons and Parole members Mike McKee, left, and Pete Lawrenson.

HELENA – Mike McKee, who resigned last week as chairman of the state Board of Pardons and Parole, says he stepped down to avoid any controversy over his reappointment, as the 2015 Legislature considers proposed changes to board procedure.

McKee, a Hamilton resident and longtime board member, said he believes the board does a good job protecting public safety, and should remain independent and maintain its broad discretion to decide on paroles and clemency requests.

He submitted his resignation last Wednesday, about a month after initially asking Gov. Steve Bullock to reappoint him as chair of the Board of Pardons and Parole for another four years. McKee’s current term on the board expires this month.

McKee wasn’t available for an interview, but sent a letter Saturday to the Missoulian State Bureau explaining his decision.

In the letter, he acknowledged that his reappointment faced opposition from critics of the board.

“By stepping aside now and not placing the governor in the uncomfortable position of having to make a controversial decision, I hope that the Legislature will be able to focus on supporting the Parole Board, the prisons and the correctional system in general,” he said in the letter.

He also said while “some people may be dancing in the streets over the news (of my resignation), I believe that the vast majority of law-abiding citizens of the state appreciate the outstanding job that the Parole Board has done in promoting and protecting public safety.”

McKee has spent 11 of the past 14 years on the board and several years as its chair.

Now a legislative panel has spent 18 months studying the Parole Board and its procedures. In September, it recommended several changes, including giving the governor power to remove the board chair and to grant clemency even though the board recommends against it.

The study was in response to complaints from inmate families and others who said the board is too strict or acts arbitrarily in granting paroles.

During the study, McKee sometimes appeared before the Law and Justice Interim Committee to argue that board procedure and rules don’t need any major changes.

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In his letter Saturday, McKee said much of the opposition to his reappointment came from supporters of Barry Beach, a convicted murderer who has maintained his innocence. The board has rejected several attempts by Beach to commute his sentence or gain his release from prison, including a decision this year that said his sentence should not be altered to allow him to be paroled.

Under current law, the governor cannot override a Parole Board clemency recommendation on non-death penalty cases.

“Any significant tinkering with the system to `punish’ the Parole Board for its actions in cases like Barry Beach will not be in the best public interest and may result in serious, unintended consequences,” McKee said.

Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, who chaired the study panel, said Monday its support of reforms is not tied to the Barry Beach case.

“The issues addressed in our study were founded on diverse testimony, multiple sources and extensive research by legislative staff, comparing how other states handle these issues,” she said.

Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, another panel member, said its members mostly agree with McKee that the probation and parole system works well in Montana, and that they “very much appreciate (McKee’s) long service to the state.”

Hill, however, said she supports some of the proposed changes, and that she had asked Bullock to appoint a new chair to replace McKee.

Hill said she and others felt that in certain cases before the Parole Board, McKee would choose three-person panels deciding the case in order to achieve a “predetermined outcome.”

Dave Parker, spokesman for Gov. Bullock, said Monday the Parole Board is “one of the hardest-working boards in Montana,” and that the governor “appreciates the dedication and service Mike McKee brought to his duties as chairman.”

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