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Shelter battle


Lawsuit claims conflict of interest, Take Shelter Oklahoma wants state Attorney General removed from a storm shelter petition drive.

Tim Farley November 13th, 2013

Thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from leading business executives could force Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to disqualify himself from a legal battle involving a statewide storm shelter petition drive.

A lawsuit filed at the Oklahoma Supreme Court alleges Pruitt accepted donations from political action committees and influential businessmen connected to the State Chamber of Commerce, which formally opposes the state’s franchise tax and wants it abolished.

The franchise tax would be used to repay $500 million in state bonds if the petition drive is successful and is placed on the November 2014 ballot.

So far, volunteers have collected 60,000 of the required 160,000 signatures. The move to fund and build storm shelter in all public schools was prompted by the May 20 tornadoes that killed seven children at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore.

David Slane, attorney for the nonprofit Take Shelter Oklahoma, claims Pruitt, Gov. Mary Fallin and the state chamber are working jointly to sabotage the storm shelter effort because they don’t agree with the proposed financing mechanism. Slane contends an issue intended to provide safety for schoolchildren has been politicized.

“They are causing public confusion,” he said.

After the initiative petition was submitted for approval to the secretary of state’s office on Sept. 18, opponents claim Pruitt changed the ballot language to emphasize the state’s franchise tax. However, Take Shelter Oklahoma alleges Pruitt failed to provide the secretary of state with a written notice of potential problems with the ballot language until Sept. 27 — two days after the legal deadline.

Slane has asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the original ballot language because of Pruitt’s untimely response. Slane also contends the ballot language was legally correct and did not need to be amended.
“These changes were made because the Attorney General Scott Pruitt is politically motivated to assist” members of the State Chamber of Commerce.

“The Attorney General has rewritten the (ballot) title to help achieve the goal of eliminating the corporate franchise tax and defeating the initiative petition,” the lawsuit alleges.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case Dec. 18, two days after the deadline for petition signatures.

Reaction
In January, the state chamber issued a policy statement opposing the franchise tax. However, chamber officials insisted Wednesday that the alleged connection between Pruitt’s campaign donations and chamber members is “absurd and nothing more than a desperate publicity stunt.”

“The State Chamber and its PAC (Political Action Committee) have not made any contributions to Attorney General Scott Pruitt. The chamber has taken no position on the proposed ballot measure,” said Fred Morgan, chief executive officer and president of the state chamber.

Records show top officials from two major utilities — AT&T Oklahoma President Bryan Gonterman and OGE Energy Corp. Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Peter Delaney — sit on the chamber’s executive committee. Pruitt’s campaign report for April 1, 2013 through June 30, 2013 shows OGE Energy Corp’s Employees PAC contributed $1,500 and the AT&T Oklahoma PAC donated $5,000. A second campaign contribution of $2,000 was made by the OGE Energy Employees PAC on Sept. 5.

Individually, Delaney contributed $3,500 on Sept. 5.

A review of other individual contributions to Pruitt’s 2014 re-election bid shows 43 OGE employees donated $17,825 on Sept. 5. The campaign report shows 19 of the OGE employees donated $500 or more.
Meanwhile, Pruitt spoke publicly for the first time since the issue surfaced weeks ago.

“As a parent, I commend those trying to find a way to protect Oklahoma students from severe and dangerous weather, and changes to this proposal should not be considered an opinion for or against their efforts. I, along with our senior attorneys, reviewed the proposed language as we do with every ballot title. We found it did not comply with the law,” he said in a prepared statement.

In defense of his legal staff, Pruitt said, “To assail their commitment as politically motivated is untruthful and just silly.”

Pruitt did not address the campaign contributions or his alleged ties to the state chamber.

Meanwhile, Slane contends Pruitt’s alleged conflict of interest should disqualify him from arguing the case in front of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

“You can’t be neutral and also taking thousands of dollars from the state chamber and big business,” he said. “Scott Pruitt is taking his marching orders from the state chamber. They’re all in bed together. This is about money, not school safety.”

Slane said he intends to file an open records request to obtain all emails and other correspondence between the attorney general and state chamber officials.

 
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