Transparency mixed at underfunded Oklahoma Ethics Commission

BY JOHN ESTUS Published: March 13, 2011
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I’d say things are a whole lot different now.”

Transparency, secrecy weighed
Most 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.