In July, at least 10 Oklahoma legislators accepted scholarships valued at as much as $440 to attend a two-day conference at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino sponsored by a trade group representing high-interest installment loan companies.
The Independent Finance Institute of Oklahoma, which hosted the meeting, has the same mailing address as the Texas-based money lender Western Shamrock Corp., according to its website.
The group paid for several legislators’ hotel stay at the Hard Rock.
Oklahoma’s ethics rules allow state employees and lawmakers to accept limitless scholarships, grants and travel subsidies from special interest groups.
Other state lawmakers have accepted trips to Israel valued between $4,000 and $11,000; and attended conferences backed by conservative Christian groups including Focus on the Family.
Although lobbyists are barred from giving lawmakers gifts worth more than $100 and spending more than $500 for meals per year on any one lawmaker, the Oklahoma Ethics Commission does not impose any monetary limits on scholarships, grants and travel subsidies to state employees and lawmakers to take trips and attend conferences sponsored by special interest groups.
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, was among attendees of the Hard Rock conference. McCall accepted a $285 scholarship to attend the event, according to an Ethics Commission filing.
“The Speaker’s primary area of interest and knowledge in policy is finance and banking,” Jason Sutton, press secretary for McCall said in a statement. “The conference was about federal and state regulation of those industries.”
Several other state lawmakers who attended the event did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, also accepted a $285 scholarship to attend the meeting. Dunnington was the was the only one of about half a dozen state lawmakers contacted by The Frontier who agreed to an interview about the Hard Rock meeting.
The Independent Finance Institute paid for Dunnington to stay in a room for one night at the Hard Rock, he said.
The event was educational and mainly centered around new federal lending regulations instituted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“I took the invitation as an opportunity to go learn about consumer lending,” Dunnington said.
The President of the Independent Finance Institute of Oklahoma is listed on its website as Tom Hudgins, chief operating officer for Western Shamrock.
In 2011, Hudgins led an industry-backed group called Stand Up Missouri to oppose a Missouri ballot measure to cap interest rates on payday lending.
Hudgins said he was no longer the president of Independent Finance Institute and declined to talk about last summer’s conference at the Hard Rock when contacted by a reporter. He did not respond to multiple follow-up phone calls.
A lobbyist for the group, Greg Piatt, also did not respond.
Lawmakers can accept limitless travel subsidies, scholarships
As long as state employees and lawmakers file paperwork to disclose the organization that paid for the scholarship or subsidy, treating lawmakers to out-of state trips and hotel stays is allowable under current ethics rules, said Ashley Kemp, executive director for the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.
“There aren’t any limits, but it’s a disclosure issue,” Kemp said.
The rules allow state employees and lawmakers to accept free flights and hotels from political advocacy groups, think tanks sponsored by large corporations and other special interest group. Most of the sponsoring groups are organized as 501(c)(3) charities, which aren’t required by law to disclose their donors.
Former Oklahoma Ethics Commissioner Thomas Walker believes the state’s current disclosure rules are too lax and allow lawmakers to accept expensive trips and hotel stays from dark money groups.
In 2015, Walker attempted to introduce new rules that would require state employees and lawmakers to disclose the donors of any organization that gave them a scholarship or travel subsidy. Walker’s proposal failed after several state lawmakers spoke out against the amendment.
“My concern was that the lawmakers and public officials generally could attend a conference, have all or part of their way paid by another entity and the public could not know who really footed the bill,” Walker said.
Trips for lawmakers from advocacy groups that don’t disclose donors
In the past year, Oklahoma lawmakers have accepted scholarships and subsidies from several national public policy think tanks that do not disclose their donors, Ethics Commission records show.
In October, state lawmakers were deadlocked in a special legislative session, trying to fill a $215 million budget gap to fund the Department of Human Services, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.
The same month, State Sen. Kim David, R-Porter, chairwoman for the Senate Appropriations Committee accepted a $1,047 scholarship to attend two-day policy summit put on by the Foundation for Government Accountability in Naples, Florida.
The Foundation for Government Accountability is a free-market think tank that advocates welfare reforms such work requirements for people on Medicaid and food stamp recipients. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the organization does not disclose its donors.
As chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, David oversees billions of dollars in state funding each year for about 70 state agencies. David did not respond to multiple interview requests.
In July, Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate accepted a $1,138 scholarship to attend a two-day Statesmen Academy program in Colorado, sponsored by the conservative Christian groups Family Policy Alliance and Family Policy Foundation. Both groups are affiliated with Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family. The academy is hosted at Focus on the Family’s Colorado Springs campus.
The Statesmen Academy program offers “Christian worldview training” for state lawmakers across the country, according to the Family Policy Alliance website. The groups promotes pro-life legislation and also opposes gay marriage. The Family Policy Alliance also supports so-called “bathroom bill” legislation that would require transgendered people to use the public restrooms for the sex that appears on their birth certificate, according to its website.
In advance of this year’s legislative session, Brecheen has filed a bill called the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” that would protect government employees and business owners to deny service to gay and transgendered people on moral or religious grounds. The bill is modeled on legislation Mississippi enacted in 2016 that is set to take effect later this year.
In response to The Frontier’s questions about the Statesmen Academy, Brecheen said in email that he attended the event for the “opportunity to learn from experienced Christian legislative leaders” and to network with “like-minded public policy makers.”
“Legislators who approach public policy in adherence to Judeo-Christian beliefs are facing a more hostile media and more divisive politics than in prior years” Brecheen said. “There will continue to be more establishment pressure put on legislators to discard biblical principles and the Family Policy Foundation created the Statesmen Academy to give pro-family voters the opportunity to vote for stronger pro-family legislators.”
In November, Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell, accepted a $756 scholarship to attend a two-day conference at the Omni Hotel Dallas Park West in Dallas sponsored by the WallBuilders ProFamily Legislative Network. The organization, which also does not disclose its donors, promotes the belief that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and should be governed on Biblical principles.
In August 2016, Russ also attended a two-day conference in Chicago sponsored by the conservative think tank The Heartland Institute. The group does not disclose its funding sources but has said publicly that past donors have include Exxon Mobil Corp. and the billionaires Charles and David Koch. The Heartland Institute paid $350 in airfare and $229 for for Russ, according to a disclosure form filed with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.
The Heartland Institute is most widely known for its outspoken stance that the threat of climate change has been exaggerated and that there is no need for humans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In years past, The Heartland Institute has supported tobacco companies with research to debunk health risks associated with second-hand smoke.
Russ declined to comment.
Trips to Israel
At least two state lawmakers have accepted pricey but permissible paid trips to Israel in recent years.
In December 2016 and January 2017, Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City, took a week-long trip to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem sponsored by The National Conference of State Legislators and the America-Israel Defense League.
The groups paid $4,000 for Inman to take the trip and meet with members of parliament and learn about “cultural and business opportunities,” according to an Ethics Commission filing.
Inman did not respond to The Frontier’s questions about the trip.
In November 2015, Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, embarked on a 9-day trip valued at $11,700 to Tel Aviv, paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation. The group is the charitable arm of AIPAC, one of the largest pro-Israel lobbying groups in the United States.
In a statement, Treat said the The American Israel Education Foundation recruited him and other state and religious leaders from the southwestern United States “to educate us on our shared business and political interests.”
“This trip was beneficial to get a greater understanding of the economic ties between our two countries and to forge relationships with fellow Christian leaders from Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, Louisiana and Arkansas,” Treat said. “It also has facilitated interfaith dialogue within Oklahoma about our shared interest in moving Oklahoma forward.”
Sponsored trips for state regulators, policymakers
State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and several members of her staff have accepted scholarships to attend conferences sponsored by The Foundation for Excellence in Education, ethics filings show.
The education reform think tank was founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and supports taxpayer vouchers for parents to use for tuition at private schools, expanding charter schools, and assigning A-F letter grades to schools.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s National Summit on Education Reform at the Omni Nashville Hotel in Nashville in November. Hofmeister accepted a $1,455 scholarship to attend the event, according to an ethics filing.
“In any given year, the Excel in Ed conference includes a wide array of important, timely education topics,” said Steffie Corcoran, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
Hofmeister also also accepted a scholarship for $1,038 to attended the 2016 Foundation for Excellence in Education summit in Washington DC, according to an ethics filing.
The 2016 conference included valuable information as states began responding to new federal laws, including the Obama Administration’s Every Student Succeeds Act, Corcoran said.
In June, Todd Hiett, vice chairman for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, accepted a scholarship for $1,489 to attend an three-day American Wind Energy Association conference in Anaheim, Calif.
The conference included events like a golf tournament and a reception and batting practice at Angel Stadium.
While the Corporation Commission does not directly regulate most aspects of the wind industry in Oklahoma, it does oversee utility companies, some of which have made significant investments in wind energy in recent years.
Public Service Co. of Oklahoma is now seeking approval from the Corporation Commission to recover costs from consumers by raising utility rates to pay for its $4.5 billion Wind Catcher Energy Connection project, which includes 800 wind turbines in the Oklahoma Panhandle and a 350-mile transmission line.
Hiett said he attended the wind conference after he was invited to serve on a panel with other regulators and policymakers.
Hiett says he opposes many tax breaks and subsidies for the wind industry.
“It didn’t make me a really popular person at the conference,” he said.
Hiett said he didn’t feel that anyone tried to lobby him or influence his views at the event, but the conference did make him more aware of how large the wind industry has grown and how many jobs it has created, he said.
“It was a good event,” Hiett said. “I would attend again if I was invited.”