Financial disclosure statements filed by some of the current State Board of Health members prior to the Ethics Commission rule change in July 2016. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

For the public, finding out whether members of state agency governing bodies might have a financial conflict of interest is a lot more difficult than it was a few years ago, thanks to Ethics Commission rules that now exempt board and commission members from having to file financial disclosure documents.

Last week, an Oklahoma medical marijuana advocacy group filed a lawsuit against Oklahoma State Board of Health members after the members voted during the July 10 meeting to add last-minute amendments to rules that banned dispensaries from offering smokable forms of marijuana and required a pharmacist to be present at dispensaries.

The lawsuit alleges, among other things, that the five board members voting in favor of the amended rules had a vested interest in the amendments being passed, since their employers and some of the professional and civic organizations they belong to had joined the campaign against passage of the medical marijuana ballot initiative, State Question 788.

Board of Health member Chuck Skillings — who had been appointed to serve on the board by Gov. Mary Fallin in late April and whose first board of health meeting was the July 10 meeting — was the board member who offered up the amendments for a vote.

Skillings, who is CEO of Saint Anthony Hospital in Shawnee, had only recently stepped down from the board of directors for the Oklahoma Hospital Association, one of the groups that had recommended the rule amendments the day before the meeting. Skillings is also a board member for the Shawnee Chamber of Commerce and Shawnee Economic Development Authority, which, in addition to the OHA, had joined a coalition opposing passage of State Question 788.

The other board members, the lawsuit states, are also members of professional organizations that opposed the ballot measure and had recommended the rules, such as the Oklahoma State Medical Association and Oklahoma Osteopathic Association.

However, like all other state agency governing boards, appointees to the Oklahoma State Board of Health are no longer required to file financial disclosure statements with the Ethics Commission, thanks to rules passed by the Commission at the behest of a host of legislative leaders, the Governor’s Office and other elected and appointed officials.

As previously reported by Oklahoma Watch, the changes to the financial disclosure rules passed by the Ethics Commission in November 2015 and which went into effect in July 2016, also allow candidates who are running for office but have not yet been elected to skip filing a financial disclosure statement until after they are elected. Currently only state elected officials and judges subject to retention are required to file financial disclosures.

In addition, the Ethics Commission’s most recent financial disclosure form scaled back considerably on what existing state office holders are required to report. Gone are questions related to the filer’s relationships with lobbyists, whether the filer owns a business that contracts with the state or whether the filer’s spouse is employed by a state agency.

The purpose of requiring financial disclosure statements from public officials, according to ethics commission rules prior to the change, was to reveal “potential conflicts between their public duties and private economic interests.”

So how did the state end up not requiring members of state agency governing bodies to file financial disclosure statements?

The Ethics Commission began looking at revising its financial disclosure rules in earnest in early 2015.

According to meeting minutes of the commission meetings during 2015, the financial disclosure rules at the time applied to nearly 7,000 public officials or employees across the state, overwhelming the commission’s small staff. The financial disclosure filings also received little scrutiny, Ethics Commission staff said, as most efforts were focused on campaign and lobbyist reporting and enforcement, the minutes show.

In May of that year, a number of elected officials and their proxies attended the Commission’s meeting to ask that the financial disclosure rules be amended, stating that the forms did not reveal conflicts of interest and discouraged people from running for office because the disclosure requirements were invasive and cumbersome.

Among those who pushed for the Ethics Commission to require less financial disclosure in the months leading up to the vote were former Sen. David Holt (who was recently elected mayor of Oklahoma City), Sen. Kay Floyd (who was recently elected Democratic Caucus Chair), former Sen. Cliff Brannon (who is now a registered lobbyist for the oil and gas industry), Sen. Stephanie Bice, former Rep. Gary Banz, and an attorney from Gov. Mary Fallin’s office.

Former Senate Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee, who this year was one of the political consultants for groups opposing State Question 788, also appeared at the May 2015 the Ethics Commission meetings, records show, as an outside attorney for then-Senate Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, who is currently in a runoff race for Corporation Commissioner.

Coffee said Bingman “would argue that it is not in the best interest of the Commission to continue with the current disclosure form,” the May 8, 2015 meeting minutes state. “There is a constitutional obligation of each legislator to abstain from voting if they have a conflict. He would also argue that he is not aware of any effort to identify corruption that relied on such disclosure form.”

Transparency advocates and media organizations argued against revising the rules to limit who files financial disclosures or the information contained in the disclosures, saying that limiting the disclosures would make it easier for possible corruption or conflicts of interest to be hidden.

During the Commission’s August 2015 meeting, Joey Senat, associate professor of media and strategic communications at Oklahoma State University, told the commission that removing the financial disclosure requirements for members of public boards and commissions would decrease the transparency of those public bodies.

“They (board and commission members) have taken on an important role and responsibility in the operation of our state government,” Senat said. “At the same time, as appointees, they are not directly accountable to the public. In other words, voters don’t elect them. That means these powerful government officials don’t have to go before the public to earn their positions. They don’t file campaign finance reports.”

When the new rules finally did come before the Ethics Commission to be voted on in November 2015, commissioner Thomas Walker, who resigned from the commission a few months later, offered an amended version of the rules that would have largely kept the financial disclosure requirements in place, meeting minutes show. Walker’s amendment died after no other commissioners seconded the motion.

Following Walker’s failed amendment, John C. Hawkins, a Pryor businessman who had been appointed by Bingman to the commission a year earlier, introduced a measure that would remove members of boards and commissions from reporting requirements. It (and other amendments that changed the financial disclosure requirements) passed, with only Walker voting no.

Now, only current state elected officers and judges subject to retention are required to file annual financial disclosure statements with the commission.

“What they should have to do is reveal certain sources of income, investments, and other financial ties to assure the public that they are performing their duties honestly,” Senat told The Frontier. “The Ethics Commission lost sight of the ultimate purpose of such reports: Building public confidence in what government officials are doing on the public’s behalf.”