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Secretive group spends thousands on Oklahoma political ads

by Nolan Clay Published: April 15, 2013

© 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.

Incorporation records

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by Nolan Clay
Sr. Reporter
Nolan Clay was born in Oklahoma and has worked as a reporter for The Oklahoman since 1985. He covered the Oklahoma City bombing trials and witnessed bomber Tim McVeigh's execution. His investigative reports have brought down public officials,...
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