Parole board member quits for playing word games during hearings

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A member of the Missouri Parole Board resigned Monday over reports he played word games at parole hearings.

A report by the state Department of Corrections inspector general says parole board member Don Ruzicka and another government employee held contests in which they attempted to mention silly, predetermined words or song names, such as “hootenanny,” “platypus” or “Folsom Prison Blues” during hearings with inmates to determine their parole eligibility.

According to the report, the two scored points when they worked a word into the hearing. One point was awarded if they mentioned the word or song, and two points were earned if they got the inmate to repeat it.

Ruzicka, who was a state representative in the Missouri Legislature from 2007 to 2012, and the unnamed employee played the game on multiple occasions in multiple hearings throughout summer 2016, the report says.

Hootenanny, platypus and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’

In parole hearings on June 21, 2016, one of the “words of the day,” as the report calls them, was “hootenanny.”

“Hootenanny” was first mentioned in a conversation about the inmate’s criminal history. The unnamed employee managed to say the word three more times, causing Ruzicka to laugh out loud each time, the report says. At one point, the employee whispered to Ruzicka, “I got four.”

In another hearing, an inmate told the panel that the first time she used heroin was at a rave.

“I thought they might have called it a hootenanny,” the unnamed employee said.

“A what?” the inmate asked.

“A hootenanny,” the employee said. “A party.” Both Ruzicka and the employee laughed.

The next day, on June 22, “platypus,” “armadillo” and “egg” were all words of the day.

When asking one inmate about his previous offenses, Ruzicka asked the inmate about items he’d stolen from a garage, and said, “That’s a pretty rare item, about like a platypus. How did you know those items were there?”

On July 18, Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” were both song titles that Ruzicka and the employee tried to work into the hearings.

While describing a sexual offense an inmate had been convicted of, the unnamed employee said, “Your grandma would probably be like ‘he ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,’ you know it.”

Toward the end of the hearing, the report says, the employee told the offender he could be sent to the sexually violent predator unit, in which case “he might as well learn ‘Folsom Prison Blues,'” the report says.

Ruzicka said game was his idea

On September 22, 2016, Ruzicka and the employee were removed from parole hearing schedules while the inspector general investigated.

Ruzicka said during the inspector general’s investigation that the game was his idea. When confronted by concerns about his behavior, he said the hearings had been “thorough and complete.”

“It is clear when listening to the hearings in which the game was played, both Ruzicka and [redacted] seemed to struggle with the interviewing process,” the inspector general’s report says.

“It seemed they were trying so hard to embed the words or song titles into their questions or statements that they were not focused on the proper questions to ask nor were they actively listening to the responses from the offenders.”

Ruzicka resigned his post as a Parole Board member Monday.

Kenny Jones, chairman of the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, accepted the resignation and said, “Members of the board must be held to a higher standard in order to do the work that is requested of them to ensure that all parties involved are equally heard during the hearing process before a final decision is made.”

CNN’s efforts to reach Ruzicka by phone and email Monday were unsuccessful.