© Copyright 2013, The Oklahoman
A secretive group is spending thousands of dollars on political ads calling for the defeat of legislation that would dramatically change the workers' compensation system in Oklahoma, records show.
The group, Oklahoma Works, does not have to disclose its financial backers because of a loophole in the law.
“If they are engaged only in issue advocacy, then there's no requirement that they register or report with us,” said Lee Slater, the new executive director of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.
The Oklahoman was able to identify one financial backer of the group as Brandon Burton, an Oklahoma City attorney who represents injured workers at the comp court and is paid from their awards.
In ads on TV and radio, Oklahoma Works is urging citizens to call their legislators and tell them to vote against Senate Bill 1062.
“That's issue advocacy. That's an issue,” Slater said. “You see that fairly frequently. … You've seen companies take out ads in The Oklahoman to call your senator, call your representative, tell them to vote no or yes, whichever the case may be, on Senate Bill 62 or whatever.
“That's free speech protected by the First Amendment. And there's no registration or reporting requirement either at the federal or state levels.”
In Oklahoma, candidates for office have to report most of their contributors to the Ethics Commission. Groups for or against state questions must report, too.
Some states do requires groups involved in issue advocacy to reveal their donors.
In the state of Washington, for instance, a so-called grassroots lobbying group must identify any contributor who gave $25 or more if the group spent more than $500 in a month or more than $1,000 over three months.
About the comp bill
SB 1062 would replace Oklahoma's court-based comp system with an administrative one and would allow employers to opt out of the system and provide their own form of coverage. It also reduces certain benefits to injured workers. The bill is now before the House.
In some ads, Oklahoma Works claims passage of the Senate bill would result in “ObamaComp,” a play on the word Obamacare that is used by critics of the national health care law.
One supporter of SB 1062 suggested Oklahoma Works' financial backers are those with a vested interest in the current comp system.
“If somebody's telling these kind of lies, it's because somebody's got a vested interest in it staying the same,” said Jerrod Shouse, Oklahoma director of the National Federation of Independent Business, an association of small businesses.
Shouse called groups like Oklahoma Works “vapor.”
“They are the smoke in the smoke-filled room. We see their message. They make their presence known. But you can't touch them. They're not there. It's very frustrating to us,” he said.
There are some records about the group.
Oklahoma Works filed incorporation papers at the Oklahoma Secretary of State in December 2011. The records identify it as a nonprofit corporation. Its registered agent is listed as Chris Lucas, who is owner of Koko FitClub at 7316 N Western in Oklahoma City.
It has a website, www.oklahomaworks.org, that features videos from two injured workers. It also is on both Facebook and Twitter.
It does not have a registered lobbyist. Its executive director is Laura Brookins. She is a lobbyist for the Oklahoma Association of Health Plans.
Her name and phone number was on Oklahoma Works' website in March but they are no longer on the group's contact page.
The group refused to reveal to The Oklahoman who is on its board of directors and how much money it has raised.
In an email, it wrote “confidentiality is an important aspect of maintaining relationships we've built over the years” as a nonprofit organization.
“To respect those relationships, we can't offer details that fall outside of the IRS disclosure guidelines we've agreed to follow,” it stated.
In a separate email, Brookins, an attorney, wrote the group's supporters “come from all walks of life, including business owners, emergency first responders, educators and health care providers.
“We provide a year-round voice at the state Capitol for workers from all industries, and rely on public support and donations to accomplish our mission,” she wrote.
“The individuals and organizations that allow us to advocate on behalf of working Oklahomans share a common interest in protecting the delicate balance between the rights of individuals and the economic interests of their employers,” she wrote.
Brookins did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Lucas also did not respond to repeated messages left on a phone and at his fitness club for comment.
The group spent at least $26,000 on political commercials in Oklahoma City in March and so far in April, according to records of their buys on file for public inspection at television and radio stations and at Cox Communications.
Paying $1,340 for the group's commercials last week on KOKH-25 was Burton, according to records at the TV station.
The Oklahoman questioned Burton on Wednesday, before a reporter discovered he had paid for some TV commercials. Burton said then that he believed a number of entities were behind Oklahoma Works. He did not disclose then that he was a supporter. He could not be reached for comment on Thursday or Friday.
Active in promoting the group on Facebook is Oklahoma City attorney Joey Chiaf. He represented one of the injured workers featured in the group's commercials and on its website. Chiaf also did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.
Oklahoma Works also spent thousands of dollars in 2012 on advertising opposing a workers' comp bill then before the Legislature, records show. Ads ran in both The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World.