As the Oklahoma Legislature enters the final days of its 2020 regular legislative session, a last-minute proposed amendment to a bill in the Senate has emerged that would allow politicians to use campaign money to pay for personal expenses including country club dues, mortgage payments, vacations and a other personal items.
The proposed amendment to House Bill 3996 authored by Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, would remove the state’s prohibition against candidates for office and office holders spending money donated to their political campaign committees for personal use. The amendment, which would replace all language in the original bill that was approved in March by the House, has yet to be voted on by the Senate.
The bill was originally introduced this session by House Speaker Pro Tempore Harold Wright, R-Weatherford, with Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, as the principal Senate author.
As it stands, the language currently in House Bill 3996 would allow political committees to raise funds under a “purpose” listed in its Ethics Commission filings but then donate unlimited amounts of money to other political committees that may have nothing to do with or be opposed to the committee’s purpose.
The bill’s current language also allows for traditional political action committees set up to make donations to candidates to instead make unlimited donations to so-called Super PACs, which can spend unlimited amounts of money in an election and often mask their donors using nonprofit groups. It also requires that Ethics Commission staff have personal knowledge of a rule violation by a committee before filing a complaint, and allows state officers to solicit donations via their official social media page as long as state resources were not used.
That bill passed the House on March 9 by a vote of 62-33.
However, when the bill went to the Senate, it was originally assigned to the Senate Rules Committee, but, according to the Legislature’s bill tracking site, it was withdrawn from the Rules Committee on Monday, had its title restored and substitute language was submitted by Thompson. The bill was listed as direct to calendar and Rader was removed as the author, though as of Thursday, it had yet to be scheduled for a floor vote.
Thompson is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rader is vice-chair.
Under the replacement language submitted by Thompson, contributions to a candidate committee, a political action committee, or a political party committee “may be converted by any person to personal use as long as any expenditure from such conversion is reported pursuant to the Rules of the Ethics Commission.”
Personal use includes food purchases, clothing, gifts, mortgage and vehicle payments, vacations, interest on loans made by the candidate to his or her campaign, admission to athletic events, concerts, dues in country clubs, and a host of other uses not related to campaigning for office.
Currently, personal use of campaign finance funds is illegal at both the state and federal level, and there is a bi-partisan rogues gallery of candidates and campaign officials who have been criminally prosecuted for personal use of campaign funds in the past.
Thompson, Wright and Rader did not respond to phone messages left by The Frontier on Thursday.
Campaign records show Thompson, who was reelected to a second term in 2018, has raised a total of $320,000 through his campaign committee and spent more than $289,000. Of the amount spent since the committee was established, more than $20,000 in campaign funds went to Thompson, mostly for mileage reimbursement.
Wright, who does not face re-election in 2020 because of term limits, received more than $133,000 in donations to his 2018 campaign and spent more than $109,000, according to the most recent campaign finance filings. The records show Wright’s 2018 campaign has paid several radio stations and a newspaper owned by Wright more than $29,400 for ads, rent and cell phone usage. Wright has also reimbursed more than $1,600 by his campaign, mostly for a trip to Washington D.C., the records show.
Rader’s 2018 campaign has raised close to $113,000, including around $26,000 raised since January, but has spent only around $18,000 since the campaign committee was established.
Read the proposed replacement language for House Bill 3996 submitted by Sen. Thompson here: