HERE'S hoping the bribery conviction of former state Rep. Randy Terrill grabs Oklahoma lawmakers' attention. Ideally, it should prompt them to embrace greater transparency and higher ethical standards. It's time to permanently slam the door on the practices and attitudes that facilitated Terrill's scheme.
On the transparency issue, lawmakers have adopted some praiseworthy reforms, but the system still has flaws.
When the House and Senate pass conflicting versions of the same bill, the legislation is sent to a joint conference committee. For years, those committees rarely held public meetings and did not cast public votes. The language of bills was often kept secret until reaching the floor of either chamber.
Terrill exploited this secretive process and attempted to create an $80,000 job to bribe a state senator. He quietly slipped the job provision into a bill during the Legislature's final days of session, when the opportunity for public scrutiny was minimized.
After Terrill's indictment, the House began requiring public conference committee meetings with public votes, public notification of meeting times and locations, and advance public release of proposed legislation. Today both the House and Senate have a waiting period before bills can receive a floor vote.
But under current House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, the House has partially backed away from those reforms. This year, Shannon created at least four conference committees that operated in secret, duplicating the process exploited by Terrill. One of those committees advanced last-minute legislation by House Speaker Pro Tem Mike Jackson, R-Enid, to effectively cut taxes on certain tobacco products.
Needless to say, that didn't pass the smell test.
Shannon and House lawmakers should commit to full transparency. At the same time, the Oklahoma Senate should fully adopt the House's open conference committee process. There's no reason to preserve any part of a closed-door system that facilitated a bribery scheme.
In addition to greater transparency, lawmakers should adopt serious ethical guidelines that demonstrate commitment to high standards of behavior in public office. To understand how low the bar is set today, one only has to review how legislators handled Terrill's bribery case.
Following Terrill's indictment, House leadership established a special investigative committee to review the case and recommend action, including Terrill's possible expulsion. The committee's final report didn't whitewash Terrill's actions. It did something worse: It tacitly condoned them — so long as Terrill avoided criminal prosecution.
After hearing from many of the same witnesses involved in the recent trial, the report declared the committee did “not discount any of the statements” presented and “assumes they are true.” The report noted Terrill did not “choose to provide the Committee with evidence.” But the group concluded, “Based on the available evidence, even assuming the truth of the factual allegations, no Member of the Committee would vote to recommend expulsion of Rep. Terrill from the Oklahoma House of Representatives unless he is convicted in a court of law of the charges against him.”