- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 23, 2014

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The former chairman of the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, who resigned last week, has acknowledged his earlier request to be reappointed faced opposition from board critics.

Mike McKee of Hamilton explained his Dec. 17 resignation in a letter to Lee Newspapers of Montana. He said he did not want to put Gov. Steve Bullock in the “uncomfortable position of having to make a controversial decision.”

McKee had asked Bullock in November to re-appoint him to the seven-member board that he has served on for 11 of the past 14 years.

He said much of the opposition to his reappointment came from supporters of Barry Beach, who is serving a life sentence for a murder he says he didn’t commit. The board has rejected several attempts by Beach to gain his release from prison.

The 2013 Legislature ordered an interim committee to study the parole board after receiving complaints from inmates and family members that its decisions seemed inconsistent or too strict.

Rep. Margie McDonald, D-Billings, who chaired the committee, said its support of reforms is not tied to the 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.

The 2015 Legislature is expected to consider several bills, including one that would give the governor power to grant clemency even if the board recommends against it.

Bullock had supported commuting Beach’s sentence, but a three-member panel of the board, including McKee, declined to forward a clemency recommendation to the governor.

By stepping aside, McKee said he hoped the Legislature will be able to focus on supporting the parole board and the Department of Corrections.

“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 wrote.

Democratic Rep. Ellie Hill of Missoula, a member of the interim committee, said she had asked Bullock to appoint a new chair to replace McKee. She said she and others felt that in some cases before the board, McKee would chose three-person panels to decide cases in order to achieve a “predetermined outcome.”

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