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Why doesn't the Oklahoma Ethics Commission have enough bite?



Two days before Oklahoma City officially learned it was getting a professional basketball team, a full-court press was taking place at the state Capitol. The owners of the Seattle SuperSonics were demanding millions of dollars in tax rebates to help move the team here. An all-star group of lobbyists was quickly hired and dispatched throughout the offices of state legislators.


The tactic worked. The Sonics owners got their rebates and Oklahoma City got NBA action.

"I was really proud to be on that team," said Pat McFerron, a lobbyist with CMA Strategies.

The debate inside the Legislature became a contest over whether the rebate was that critical in convincing the NBA Oklahoma was OK for professional basketball. The Sonics owners and their front-court lobbyists hammered away the urgency of legislative action. On the opposing side, an unorganized yet scrappy set of citizens yelled as loud as it could, but was simply outgunned and outmaneuvered.

"What was bizarre about the Sonics (bill) was that it changed on a daily basis," McFerron said. "It became a rural vs. urban issue for a brief period of time. Talking to some of my rural legislative friends, they said, 'Yeah, we're for the Sonics, but this is the only leverage point we have to get X, Y or Z.' The opposition had nothing to do with (tax rebates); it was more about 'how do we use this for some other this?'"

The incident highlights how state legislation is conducted in the 21st century: through lobbyists. Combined with the questionable nuances of modern-day elections, the state of Oklahoma politics has made some rise up from their office chairs and proclaim "enough."

"It's gotten out of hand," said Rep. David Dank, R-Oklahoma City.

Dank has spearheaded an effort this year to reform lobbying and campaign contributions. His bill " which prohibits contributions during the legislative session, among other things " is one of the latest efforts put forth to reform the state's political system of lobbying and donations. The Oklahoma Ethics Commission also has also been pushing major reforms for the past few years, with more to come. Some of the commissioners' proposals may go into effect this week. Another set of their reforms has been drafted and may be put into place next year.

But do the reforms, enacted or proposed, have enough bite to make a difference?

It doesn't take much to get Lee Slater talking about ethics reform. An imposing figure, Slater is an institution of state government and politics inside and outside the Capitol. He spent 18 years in public service, as secretary of the state Senate and head of the Oklahoma State Election Board. The last two decades have found Slater in the private sector as an attorney for lobbyists.

When asked to talk about ethics reform for lobbying and campaigning, Slater looks straight up and frequently lets out big sighs.

"My clients for 15 years have asked me how to comply," Slater said from his Northwest Expressway office. "If you ratchet the requirements down too tightly, you will get two things: People will go underground. They will evade the rules. "¦ And the other thing is, you will have people who will counsel on how to avoid the new rules. "¦ What you want is to have rules that those who are governed by them can understand them and comply with them, so there is not this pressure to break them or even unwittingly break them."

Standing on the opposite side of Slater's viewpoint is another imposing figure. John Raley is in his sixth year on the ethics commission. He is a former federal prosecutor, first appointed by the late Robert Kennedy. Raley said when he began serving on the commission, he sat quietly, trying to understand how the system worked. Then he found out.

"There was some talk about campaign abuses and some talk about lobbyists and what to me was an enormous amount of money," Raley said. "After a couple of years, I got to thinking, 'Why is all of this going on, and why are we not addressing it?'"

When Raley started seeing lobbyist expenditure reports, he began speaking out.

"I referred to it as a culture of entitlement," he said. "Just because a person is elected, some think they are entitled to these freebies. Most of it is tickets to football games, basketball games, concerts or high-dollar candlelight dinners, and the response I get is, 'This is building a relationship.' So I say, 'What kind of relationship are we building here?' They say, 'We're not buying votes here,' and my response is, 'Maybe not. "¦ But the lobbyists are buying access.'"

Raley and his colleagues on the commission made a serious attempt to curtail the perceived lobbying influence on the Legislature. In February, the commission recommended rules restricting how much money lobbyists could spend on elected officials. The commission's new rules were only days away from becoming permanent at press time with the close of the legislative session.

As part of the rules, lobbyists will not be able to spend more than $100 per client on a lawmaker in a calendar year. Slater bristles at the rule.

"A lot of people play golf and do business routinely on the golf course," said Slater, who admitted he is not a golfer. "I am told by those who play golf it is (a) great opportunity to get along with somebody for four hours. You can use it to build relationships on a personal level or use it for business. Well, on some of the nicer golf courses, you can't do that for less than $100. So you eliminate that vehicle for the interchange between lobbyists and policy makers."

That argument falls flat on Raley.

"They say we are buying dinner to this guy to give us access to present our point of view," Raley said. "My philosophical response is, 'How about Joe Six-Pack on the corner who is trying to make a living? "¦ What kind of access is he going to have?'"

Slater contends, however, that Mr. Six-Pack is at the top of a legislator's pecking order.

The gift-giving season definitely follows the legislative session months of February through May, according to lobbyist expenditure reports for 2007. The freebies range from $250 tickets for the Speaker's Ball to a $2.98 cup of coffee.

The commission, headed by Executive Director Marilyn Hughes, did reduce the amount lobbyists can spend on state employees in 2005, but that had no impact when it came to elected officials. Lobbyists' gifts to legislators increased 45 percent between 2006 and 2007.

McFerron doesn't consider reducing the amount for lawmakers as a big problem.

"I really don't see the current system that abused," McFerron said. "It's almost like a solution looking for a problem."

When it comes to campaign contributions, both the Legislature and the ethics commission have attempted to reduce the influence of donor money. The results have been less than perfect.

"We have Senate races where they are spending $600,000," Dank said. "The two candidates against me spent over $300,000 for a House district that pays $38,000 a year. It's gotten out of hand."

Dank's bill, the Oklahoma Clean Campaigns Act of 2008, hung by a thread during the last week of this session. Reforms include banning contributions during the legislative session, banning political action committee-to-political action committee contributions and banning the transfer of funds from one campaign account to another.

By the time the bill made it out of Conference Committee and onto the House floor for a vote, only the contribution ban during the session survived. And it was amended only to prohibit donations from lobbyists and their clients.

But even that provision has its own problems. While a legislator couldn't take a contribution during session, five days after sine die, the checks could start rolling in. An examination of campaign reports indicates session campaign contributions pale in comparison to during other times of the year.

In 2006, the median amount of candidate contributions was $11,418 during the first quarter and $78,429 during the third quarter, according to

But Dank still contends banning contributions during the session has great importance.

"I know they can say, 'We will give you $5,000 down the road,'" Dank said. "But it's the immediacy of the thing. 'Here's $5,000 now; will you vote for our bill, or will you bring our bill out of committee?'"

Another loose tooth of Dank's bill gives lawmakers running for another office an advantage over candidates who are not in the Legislature. While lawmakers can't accept a contribution during the session when running for re-election, a legislator can accept donations in session if running for a different post, Dank confirmed. Opponents outside the Legislature would still be prohibited.

Along with new proposed rules for lobbyists, the ethics commission also proposed banning PAC-to-PAC contributions and transfers from candidate committees to PACs.

But Slater warned the more rules that are made, the more potential for breaking the rules and for litigation.

"I don't think PACs are giving to PACs," Slater said. "What does happen is someone gives to a lot of PACs, and they give to candidates. I don't know how to preclude that under the state constitution.

"There could be a high result in litigation, which costs money, and you don't know if you're solving the problem."

What advocates and lobbyists like Slater and McFerron believe is the best course of action is full disclosure " not worrying so much about the amount of the contributions and gifts, but focusing on letting the public know all the details.

"If you place the emphasis on disclosure rather than limitations, (the ethics commission's) ability is enhanced," Slater said. "No one knows how much they spend on lobbyist enforcement, but I suspect it would go down if the emphasis was on disclosure."

Raley doesn't buy that argument.

"If there is an evil in giving a thing of value to a legislator, for whatever purpose, that deprives the average voter of the same access, then what we need to do is put an end to this evil," Raley said. "The way you do that is say no to giving things of value."

Dank also has problems just going with full disclosure.

"I think you have to have limitations," he said. "I think the $5,000 (contribution limit) is way too high for legislative races. With Congress, (their contributors are) limited to $2,300 per campaign. Now, that could add up to $6,900, but that's three races in much larger districts."

Under the current rules, candidates have to disclose who contributes to their campaigns, how much is given, when it was given and whom the contributor represents. But the requirements for campaign expenditures are more vague. Candidates do not have to reveal specifically who they paid for campaign expenses or what the purpose of the expenditure was. For example, a candidate will list using $5,000 for consulting, but who the consultant was and what the consultant did for the campaign remain unknown.

It's hard to find a legislator who will say the ethics commission is not important and severely underfunded. But legislators' words and actions take different courses.

Funding for the commission has taken a higher profile this year with commissioners threatening to sue the Legislature for violating the state constitution. The creation of the commission came from a statewide vote in 1990 on a constitutional amendment.

"Some call us a state agency, but we were created by the people of Oklahoma," said commission chairman Don Bingham. "The people said the Legislature shall provide sufficient funding."

Currently, the commission has the same number of employees it started with after creation: seven. With only one investigator, and the amount of money and reporting required during elections, the commission's resources are extremely limited.

At its meeting last week, the commission approved directing the staff to prepare a lawsuit if adequate funding was not received from lawmakers.

"Our options are very few," Raley said. "We've gone to leadership "¦ with little success."

House appropriations chairman Rep. Ken Miller, R-Edmond, criticized the commission for threatening litigation.

"The Legislature has acted in good faith to provide a 30-percent increase in the ethics commission budget for next year " the largest of any state agency and its largest annual increase ever," Miller said in a press release. "The definition of 'adequate' is not up to the bureaucracy seeking the funds. This is nothing more than a frivolous lawsuit that will waste taxpayer money."

The increase, however, came with a $50,000 earmark for purchasing new software " a purchase the commission told lawmakers it didn't want and didn't need.

Slater said the commission's budget problems underscore his call for reducing the number of rules to enforce.

But money isn't the only reason the commission has ill regard toward the Legislature. When the state attorney general's office moved out of the Capitol and across the street in 2006, the commission requested lawmakers give it the cleared-out space on the first floor to help with the overcrowded filing and workspace in the commission's office in the basement. Request denied.

That new space has been dedicated for an art museum.

"We requested that space months ago," Raley said. "We are still in a broom closet in the basement. It shows where we are with the Legislature." "Scott Cooper



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