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Time for full disclosure


Bill Bleakley January 25th, 2012

Last Saturday was the second anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision permitting unlimited spending by individuals, corporations and labor unions to conduct independent political campaign activities.

Utilizing that decision, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber Forward IV program and the Oklahoma City firefighters union each created a string of entities to inundate OKC’s spring 2011 council elections with $631,041 to attack or support council candidates.

No campaign reports have been filed identifying the source of this campaign funding, only the name of the entities created to hide donors’ identities.

While the Supreme Court sanctioned these expenditures, the Citizens United decision did not diminish state and local government’s authority to require the full and timely disclosure and reporting of the contributors.

Immediately following the spring elections, Oklahoma Gazette submitted formal requests to the state Ethics Commission and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater to interpret the existing campaign disclosure laws as they apply to these independent campaigns and to identify the proper authority to receive a complaint for the failure to disclose independent contributions.

Our request and a subsequent request filed by citizen groups were to be heard by the Ethics Commission on Aug. 19. As that meeting convened, the chairperson announced that an informal phone call had just occurred with an assistant attorney general who opined that the commission had no jurisdiction to give an interpretation to those requesting it. The commission refused to address the issue.

On Jan. 12, the commission considered proposed legislation to require disclosure of itemized independent expenditures in local elections. It declined to propose the amendments to the Legislature.

On Jan. 20, the commission acted on measures relating to independent expenditures in state elections, but none relating to disclosure in local elections.

Prater has not provided any formal interpretation of requirements for disclosure of independent contributions in local elections. He has told the commission he wants nothing to do with their enforcement. The commission and its staff, in turn, often express the position that they do not have the resources to enforce local independent campaign expenditures.

It’s beginning to seem that neither the commission nor the DA have any enthusiasm toward taking measures to protect citizens’ entitlement to full and timely disclosure of these expenditures in local elections. Without such disclosure, OKC’s municipal elections will remain dominated by special interests cloaked in secrecy.

It been almost a year since the city’s 2011 elections, and Mayor Mick Cornett just now has referred the matter to the council’s legislative committee and the municipal counselor for review.

Full and timely disclosure of all campaign funding of our municipal elections must be given so voters may fully judge the candidates and their political support. Without that disclosure, voters cannot cast an informed vote and our democracy is threatened. Special interests, who may have business relationships with the city, will dominate the election process with their vastly greater resources.

If the contributions are coming directly from the general funds of the chamber and the firefighters union, that’s enough information for the voters to know because the funding is coming from the dues of their members.

But if these organizations create other entities to solicit funds or put solicited or donated funds for political purposes into their general fund, the contributor’s identity and funding should be disclosed. In fact, we believe all of the entities engaged in independent expenditures in the last city elections were “political action committees” that are required under current state law to register and disclose contributions.

With all the delays and avoidance surrounding this issue, it’s time for OKC citizens to consider an initiative petition and election to put provisions in the OKC Charter to require complete, transparent and timely reporting of all contributions and expenditures made to influence our elections.

Bleakley is publisher of Oklahoma Gazette.

 
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