Tucked away next to a barbershop in the basement of the state Capitol is a quiet, cramped office where the state Ethics Commission does its work. While hidden from most daily action at the Capitol, its mere existence is a reminder to the officials and lobbyists upstairs that down below, someone is watching. “The last thing you want is to be the subject of an ethics investigation,” former Ethics Commissioner Don Bingham said. “It affects the whole attitude of the public toward state government in general.” This week is Sunshine Week, a national initiative about the importance of transparency in government. In Oklahoma, the Ethics Commission’s vast troves of public records on campaigns, lobbying and elected official finances have resulted in a government more transparent than when the commission began its work nearly 20 years ago. However, it continues to be hampered by an ongoing battle with the Legislature for money it says it needs to prevent becoming a toothless records custodian rather than the independent government watchdog voters overwhelmingly approved in 1990. “Their most important function to me, as a citizen of Oklahoma, is to hold those in elected office accountable for their campaign actions and make sure those actions are ethical and legal,” state Treasurer Ken Miller said. As a Republican state representative last year, Miller helped direct new funding to the agency through his proposal to allow the agency to keep revenue it generates that it could not keep in the past. It is expected to generate up to $25,000 that will help offset budget cuts to maintain current operations. Commissioners have long hoped to someday hire additional investigators so they can direct more resources to investigations in addition to clerical work. The agency has just one investigator — retired FBI agent Darey Roberts, 71 — among its six-person staff. “The Legislature was generally fair with the Ethics Commission but did fail to appreciate the genuine need for additional resources,” said Bingham, a Tulsa attorney who was a commissioner from 2004 to 2009. Like most agencies, the Ethics Commission is facing a 5 percent budget cut this year as the state grapples with another budget shortfall. Still, Ethics Commission Director Marilyn Hughes said the agency’s independent existence remains its strongest trait, even with its funding problems. “It’s a deterrent,” Hughes said. “Because of its low funding, some may see the commission as window dressing, but it has had a major impact on how business is done in Oklahoma.” Hughes, who has been the agency’s director for all but the first six months of its existence, said the rules the commission has enacted and enforced have made government more ethical and transparent in Oklahoma. “When you compare it to the way things were when the commission was formed, it was not uncommon for the speaker or the pro tem to gather credit cards from lobbyists and pass them out to legislators for their evening entertainment,” Hughes said. “I’d say things are a whole lot different now.”Comments
Transparency, secrecy weighedMost of the agency’s basement office is filled with file cabinets holding thousands of campaign finance, lobbying and other disclosure forms state law requires be filed with the agency. The agency keeps thousands more archived records in a warehouse up the street. Before most of its records were made available in a searchable online database, a long line of people seeking to review the records often stretched out the agency’s door, Hughes said. Without those records, Oklahomans would have nearly no transparency into campaign finance, lobbying and ethical matters involving those who serve the public. Miller said the transparency helps hold officials accountable and rewards those who follow the rules. “The vast majority of those in elected office are serving honorably and are working and filing their ethics reports according to the law,” Miller said. “You’re very well aware that the moneys that you report on your campaign expenditure reports have to be right … even if it’s an honest mistake, it’s not going to look good. So the transparency component of it is very important.” At the same time, the agency keeps secret nearly every record related to the investigations it conducts into ethics allegations against state officials. Bingham said while he was on the commission, it took “very seriously” its responsibility to handle complaints fairly and secretly to ensure public officials’ reputations were not unfairly damaged. “Anybody can make a complaint or accusation,” Bingham said. “The fact that somebody was investigated and nothing was found ought to remain confidential.” The only public records detailing its investigations are the 10 public reprimands it has issued against officials in the past 19 years. Many of those reprimands were issued against people who were the subjects of investigations by other agencies. Other public reprimands resulted from ethics investigations that began after media reports on questionable behavior by officials. Among them were reprimands against former state Reps. Lance Cargill in 2008 for inappropriately funneling money between political action committees and Dennis Adkins in 2007 for using campaign funds to pay for a personal condominium. Records detailing the 20 private reprimands the commission has issued are kept secret, as are the 23 cases it has settled with the accused. All filed complaints — including more than 200 that were dismissed or not acted upon — are also secret.