Ethics Commission considers rules creating new category of lobbyist, requiring disclosures

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The Oklahoma Capitol BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier
The Oklahoma Ethics Commission is considering newly-proposed rules that would require individuals and groups who buy advertisements or run public campaigns intended to influence votes on legislation to disclose their donors and spending.

The proposed rule amendment, which was introduced during the Ethics Commission’s meeting Friday by Chairwoman Karen Long, would require the groups or individuals organizing a popular campaign to influence legislators to vote a certain way on specific legislation to disclose donors, expenditures and other information, as well as including language in the advertisement or message that would disclose that it is a “lobbyist communication.”

The proposal would classify ads or other types of communication made through radio, telephone, internet, cable or other broadcast media, or print communication in support or opposition to pending legislation, and for the purpose of influencing a vote on that legislation, as “indirect lobbying.”

A person would be considered an “indirect lobbyist” if they are funding the effort, or organizing, directing, or otherwise coordinating the efforts of other people to engage in lobbying for specifically identified legislation, the rules state. An example would be a group engaging in a coordinated social media or letter-writing campaign and provides individuals with pre-written letters to sign and send to legislators, said Ashley Kemp, executive director of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.

Ashley Kemp, executive director of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. Courtesy

“It creates a new type of lobbyist under the Oklahoma Ethics rules,” Kemp said. “The idea is when somebody is funding communications that involves pending legislation and is urging a specific vote on the legislation, there needs to be disclosure.”

Testimony before the Legislature, communication directly to legislators or the governor and their staffs, organizations communicating only with its members, as well as stories and commentary from news outlets would not be considered as indirect lobbying under the proposed rules.

The proposed rule amendment was introduced at the request of Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, who could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa. Courtesy

Kemp said the proposed rule will likely be amended some before being brought up for a possible vote during the commission’s next meeting on Jan. 11.

“She (Blancett) was wanting the commission to engage in rulemaking regarding some of the ways entities were attempting to influence legislation, be it through a media campaign of some sort where they were buying newspaper advertisements or internet advertisements or broadcast advertisements, to require some kind of disclosure on the communication, and who is funding it,” Kemp said.

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Unlike legislative or executive lobbyists or legislative liaisons, individuals who would fall into the category of an indirect lobbyist would not have to register with the Ethics Commission as a lobbyist, but they would have to file reports with the commission within 24 hours of spending more than a certain amount of money on indirect lobbying efforts, and file reports within 24 hours of any subsequent expenditures on the indirect lobbying effort. The threshold amount for reporting has yet to be determined by the Ethics Commission.

The reports would require the names of individuals doing the indirect lobbying, a description of what measure the lobbying effort is supporting or opposing, and the amount of money received by the indirect lobbyist as well as who the individual or corporate donors are.

The indirect lobbying communication would also require a disclosure statement of who authorized the communication and a link to the indirect lobbyists’ report filed with the Ethics Commission or to a page with information about the lobbying effort.

One recent example of what would be considered indirect lobbying under the proposed rules, Kemp said, is the “Wind Waste” campaign this past legislative session by a group called The Oklahoma Property Rights Association. The group sent out emails and engaged in social media campaigns encouraging the passage of Senate Bill 888, which was designed to end refundability for wind tax credits.

A screen shot of an email sent as part of the WindWaste campaign, which campaigned for passage of Senate Bill 888.

If passed by the commission, the proposed rules would still have to pass through the Legislature, which could vote to reject them.

During Friday’s meeting, the commission also discussed a $4.5 million budget request for the Ethics Commission, a little more than $1 million of which would be used to establish an open government division within the commission’s offices, Kemp said.

If the funding for an open government division is approved, the division would be responsible for resolving complaints about state agencies not abiding by the Oklahoma Open Records and Oklahoma Open Meetings acts, Kemp said, as well as proving a centralized location to track pending and fulfilled open records requests to state agencies and providing education to state officers about the laws’ requirements.

“Currently, the process doesn’t seem to work very well. There are a lot of complaints, there are a lot of allegations that officers and employees of agencies are not fulfilling the requests as timely as they should or not at all, but the only remedy for that is a privately-funded lawsuit or criminal charges,” Kemp said. “There seems to be a way to achieve the goals of a more efficient open records act process by putting in place ethical standards and codes of conduct regarding responding to requests and providing education opportunities for the commission to interact with agencies, boards and commissions on what their rights and responsibilities are.”

The amount requested — and the proposal to create an open government office within the commission — was also in last year’s budget request, though the Legislature only ended up appropriating $710,000 in funding for this fiscal year, prompting a lawsuit against the Legislature by the Ethics Commission. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled against the commission in that case earlier this year.

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Clifton Adcock

Senior Staff Writer

A veteran investigative reporter who has covered eastern Oklahoma for more than 15 years, Clifton joined The Frontier in April 2017. A native of southeastern Oklahoma, he has covered numerous issues from criminal justice to politics for publications including the Tulsa World, the Oklahoma Gazette, and Oklahoma Watch. Clifton holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. Clifton can be reached at clifton@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @cliftonhowze
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