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Arrested development


The state Ethics Commission declines to proceed with proposed changes to city election laws.

Clifton Adcock January 18th, 2012

The Oklahoma Ethics Commission declined at its special Jan. 12 meeting to send to the Legislature proposed changes to the laws governing local elections and campaign finance disclosure.

Ethics Commission staff had requested an overhaul of the Political Subdivisions Ethics Act that regulates city council and school board races. The proposed revisions were a response to two independent expenditure groups in the 2011 Oklahoma City Council races that, between them, had spent more than half a million dollars, as well as to bring the laws in line with a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

That Supreme Court ruling ushered in drastic changes in how corporations and labor unions could spend money on electioneering, freeing them up to fund “independent expenditure” groups that are not required to disclose their funding sources.

right, Oklahoma City lawyer Lee Slater

Such was the case with last year’s Oklahoma City Council elections.

Starting over
Ethics Commission Chairwoman Karen Long introduced a competing measure that would recommend scrapping the PSEA, which she called “irrevocably broken,” and completely rewriting the law.

Long said she was concerned that staff recommendations were a “Band-Aid” to a much bigger problem facing the state, in terms of compliance, and that the PSEA would still be administered by the Ethics Commission, which may become overwhelmed if it assumed additional administration duties.

Under Long’s proposal, those duties would go to district attorneys.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater addressed the meeting, saying he supported changes to the PSEA, but that the administrative power to regulate and enforce the law should be with the Ethics Commission, with a few exceptions.

Pat McFerron, a political consultant with CMA Strategies, told the commission he feared the proposed requirements were burdensome and excessive, especially for people wanting to run for office in smaller communities.

“I’m afraid that the one proposal from the staff will dampen participation in elections,” McFerron said.

However, Oklahoma City Councilman Pete White told commissioners unregulated, large independent expenditures that support one candidate will discourage others who don’t have that backing.

“I don’t believe the unprecedented amount of money (spent in the Oklahoma City election) encourages people to participate in politics,” White said. “You may be the last chance for us to try and do what we can to preserve the political process. Failure to enact meaningful disclosure will destroy the process as we know it.”

The item was tabled, and the commission later failed to take either measure up for a vote.

Concealing the cash
The commission also looked at staff recommendations regarding funding disclosure of independent expenditure groups.

Among the points of contention was part of the proposal to require an entity participating in an election to reveal its funding sources.

right, Independently made campaign literature, such as this mailer from last year's city election, prompted controversy.

Detractors argued that if a company or organization failed to set up a special fund for elections, and instead spent money on an election from its general treasury, it might be forced to reveal all of its members and shareholders.

Oklahoma City lawyer Lee Slater, a former secretary of the state Election Board who has represented state legislators, said the proposed law could require corporations or large organizations to reveal their membership.

Slater recommended the commission wait to see what other campaign finance cases — such as a recent Montana case possibly headed to the U.S. Supreme Court — would bring, as well as a study on the issue by the Legislature.

“I think it is a mistake for this commission to recommend specific language,” said Slater, who was the registered agent for one of the independent expenditure funding groups that participated in last year’s OKC election. “I think the Legislature needs to make changes to conform with Citizens United that are minimal changes. Anything less or more might result in litigation.”

Other groups, including Common Cause Oklahoma and the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma, urged the commission to adopt the language.

“If [the Legislature] didn’t have the [disclosure] law or anything, they would probably be more happy,” said John Wood of Common Cause. “There are reasons we have disclosure: for the citizens, who are supposed to be the bosses in this democracy.”

The commission rejected the measure on a 2-3 vote, with commissioners Long, Robert McKinney and Jo Pettigrew voting against the measure. Commissioners John Raley and Thomas Walker votes for it.

Photo by Mark Hancock

 
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