Â©Copyright 2010, The Oklahoman A state lawmaker last year quietly opened up confidential state employee information to a private labor organization that advocates for state workers. The Oklahoma Public Employees Association can now send annual mailings to the home addresses of all state workers — addresses the Legislature closed off to the public years ago by exempting them from the state’s Open Records Act. The special access to the information was made possible by Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, who is also an OPEA member. Terrill has won the group’s support again this year because he is the House author of Senate Bill 1753, which would exempt dates of birth of public employees from the Open Records Act. Since House Bill 2245 went into effect in June, a spreadsheet of all state workers’ home addresses has twice been e-mailed to direct mail companies hired by OPEA, according to Office of State Finance contracts and e-mails obtained by The Oklahoman. The confidentiality agreements call for written confirmation that the mailing list has been destroyed within five days of the mailing. The Office of State Finance has no record of those written confirmations. Jim McGoodwin, deputy director, said he received verbal confirmation. A representative of the direct mail company said it was never asked to provide written confirmation. The association has used the addresses for direct mail campaigns urging state employees to join OPEA, which has about 10,000 members out of 40,000 state employees. For his work to provide the state employee mailing list to the association, OPEA named Terrill its "Legislator of the Year” for the 2009 year. "Representative Terrill has shown himself to be a friend of state employees and OPEA by passing HB 2245,” said Connie Stockton, the group’s president, in a news release announcing Terrill’s honor. "That bill gives state employees a great tool for getting organized and growing our association. For the first time in our 34-year history, OPEA will be able to contact every state employee once per year and ask them to join with us in giving state employees a much stronger voice at the Capitol.” OPEA Deputy Director Scott Barger said the mailing list access is just another tool used by the association for recruitment. The association has had a similar mailing list arrangement since 2004 to reach retired state employees from the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System. Last year’s broader mailing list access was tacked on in the closing days of the legislative session to a bill outlining how state prisons should deal with illegal immigrant detainees. The bill was called the Oklahoma Criminal Illegal Alien Repatriation Act of 2009. The mailing list section was added to HB 2245 in a conference committee report May 21. OPEA is the only organization that has used the new law to conduct mailings, according to Office of State Finance records. The group is not charged for the list. The new law applies to organizations limited to state employee membership that include more than 2,000 state employees as members. One such organization was unaware the new law applied to organizations other than OPEA. "We’ve not ever used it,” said Amanda Ewing, executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, which represents more than 2,000 state corrections workers. Ewing said her organization likely won’t use the new law for mailings because delivering home addresses of public employees to mailing companies seems risky. "If I were a corrections officer, I’d like to have control over who knew where my home address was,” Ewing said. OPEA sued the corrections group shortly after its formation in 2008. The lawsuit accuses OPEA’s former membership coordinator and others who left OPEA to form the corrections group of using OPEA’s membership list to recruit members for the corrections group. That lawsuit is pending. This year, OPEA has been the chief supporter of Senate Bill 1753, which would exempt public employee birthdates from the Open Records Act. Other employee groups have joined OPEA to support the bill, claiming dates of birth need to be private to protect employees from identity theft and safety concerns. Freedom of information advocates oppose the bill because they say exempting dates of birth will diminish the ability of the public and media to serve as a watchdog over government. Dates of birth are a key component of accurately identifying people, particularly those with common names. Senate Bill 1753 passed the Senate and is awaiting a House panel hearing. The home addresses, telephone numbers and Social Security numbers of public employees are already exempt from the Open Records Act.
Oklahoma Public Employees Association
The Oklahoma Public Employees Association was formed in 1975. It is the largest organization for state employees, representing about 10,000 of the state’s 40,000 workers at more than 120 agencies. The group advocates higher pay, better benefits, improved working conditions and other initiatives the association thinks will help state workers. It also provides help to classified employees when they have issues before the Merit Protection Commission regarding demotions, suspensions or firings. OPEA has eight registered lobbyists at the Capitol. It also has a political action committee. Campaign donations by the committee tripled from $43,372 in the 2006 election cycle to $126,566 in 2008 campaigns, according to an analysis of campaign finance data by The Oklahoman. About half of the association’s members have authorized $2.25 a month of their $15 monthly dues to be given to the political action committee, OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley said. The political action committee is governed by nine trustees who evaluate candidates’ willingness to support state workers when deciding whether the candidates will receive donations.
OPEA political action committee contributions
Totals 2006: $42,372 2008: $126,566 Democrats 2006: $32,172 2008: $71,716 Total: $103,888 Republicans 2006: $10,200 2008: $54,850 Total: $65,050 Source: The Oklahoman analysis of Oklahoma Ethics Commission data Staff writers Paul Monies and John Estus