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Transparency mixed at underfunded Oklahoma Ethics Commission

BY JOHN ESTUS Published: March 13, 2011
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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.

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