The Edmond Sun

February 18, 2013

New Ethics Commission director eyes reforms

James Coburn
The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — Rules made by the Oklahoma Ethics Commission need to be examined for internal inconstancies, said Lee Slater, executive director of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. Slater shared his personal views recently with members of the Oklahoma Press Association.

“You have rules that are out-of-date, rules that are fairly complicated and difficult to understand on their own — rules that on their face can’t be really interpreted without knowing how the commission has applied them historically,” said Slater, who replaced retired executive director Marilyn Hughes.

“My personal view is rules need to be written in crystal clear simple language,” Slater said.

The Ethics Commission needs to examine its constitutional role with the state Legislature and judiciary, Slater said. The commission has no authority over the internal proceedings of either the Legislature or judiciary, Slater said. Some former directors of the Ethics Commission have considered it to be a fourth branch of state government, Slater said.

“I don’t think that’s right,” he said. “I think it’s an executive agency.”

 Only one lawsuit has been filed by the Ethics Commission since its inception, Slater said. The case was against former Gov. Frank Keating and was dropped by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

“The Ethics Commission has a Rule that prohibits the use of public property for a partisan political fundraiser,” the commission stated in its report. “The governor has appeared at fundraisers for candidates using transportation provided by the Department of Public Safety (Department or DPS).”

The court ruled the Ethics Commission does not have the power to regulate the governor’s security, according to court documents.

The Ethics Commission was created by a vote of the people in 1990 with constitutional responsibility to promulgate rules of conduct for campaigns for state office and state questions, Slater said. Ethical standards for state officers and employees are written by the commission, he added.

Cost of living adjustments for federal candidates increase with the cost of living, Slater said.

“There is a $5,000 campaign limit for anybody running for state office,” Slater said. “That’s been the limit since 1974. Would you like to be able to by the supplies for the prices paid in 1974? I would, but I think that’s something that needs to be examined.”

 A single person is limited to a $5,000 contribution to a statewide race. So Slater said he is not sure if it is constitutional that married couples cannot give more than $5,000 collectively to a state candidate.

“There is a threshold of $50 for identifying persons who contributed to candidates or political action committees for state offices,” Slater said. Federal candidates have a $200 threshold for identifying individuals making such a contribution, he said.

Lobbyists are restricted to a $100 contribution to state candidates but were once allowed to give $300 to a campaign. Restricting a lobbyist’s contribution to one-third of what it was a few years ago does not keep pace with inflation, Slater said.

Making rules too tight also runs the risk of reducing voluntary compliance, he said. Reasonable rules would enhance voluntary compliance, Slater said. Ethics Commission rules treat every state employee the same as the executive branch of state government. This practice makes little sense, given the difference in their policy making capacities, he said. Some prohibition is necessary for people who would abuse the law.

“My personal preference is in favor of transparency — openness over prohibition,” Slater said. “That means that I think we ought to emphasize disclosure by candidates, by lobbyists, by those who are seeking to or are in fact affecting state policy.”

Slater said his personal experience is that the Ethics Commission website is the least user-friendly site he has used.

“I want to fix that,” he said.

The state’s electronic filing system is also flawed, he said, a former part-owner of a company that engaged in campaign finance reporting.

“As we tried to report for state candidates, those flaws became obvious,” Slater said. “Sometimes the tabulation would not occur consistently.”

The total sum of contributions from certain candidates would at times result in the wrong tabulations with either too much or too little money reported, Slater said.

“Some of you are aware of allegations last summer that some PAC had made contributions in excess of $5,000 to several candidates for state office,” Slater said. “The reason for that was that the system at one point wouldn’t let you enter more than a $5,000 contribution from a PAC. Something happened to that system and it didn’t alert people any longer.”

State Sen. Clark Jolley had two ethics complaints filed against his campaign during his successful re-election effort last year against opponent Paul Blair.

Former Ethics Commission Executive Director Marilyn Hughes told The Edmond Sun in June that there is no discrepancy in the Jolley campaign’s report of transferring money to the 2012 account.

“The reporting system is flawed in my view in that all the data resides on the state’s system,” Slater said.

A problem occurred recently when state representatives had access to files before the commission had reviewed a case to confirm accuracy, Slater said. The Federal Election Commission uses a better system in which it provides software for candidates or PACs to download, he said.