From rounds of golf and tickets to see Lady Gaga and the Oklahoma City Thunder, state lawmakers got a lot of birthday gifts from lobbyists last year—sometimes when their next birthday was months away.
New state ethics rules that took effect Jan. 1 seek to clamp down on such unbirthday presents and further restrict the types of gifts that lobbyists can give to state officials. The new rules have also reduced the amount of money lobbyists can spend on gifts for special occasions.
Lobbyists gave state officers and employees $28,631 worth of gifts other than meals in 2017, most of it disclosed to the Oklahoma Ethics Commission as birthday presents.
But The Frontier found 76 instances in 2017 where state officials accepted golf outings and tickets to sporting events and concerts as birthday presents from lobbyists when they didn’t have a birthday within 30 days — that’s about 75 percent of the time. The Frontier gathered the information by using lobbyist disclosure forms filed with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission compared to lawmakers’ dates of birth culled from Nexis, a subscription database of public records that includes voter registration information.
State Chamber gave Thunder tickets as birthday gifts
Lobbyists for the State Chamber of Oklahoma outspent any other organization on tickets to Oklahoma City Thunder games last year as birthday gifts to legislators and other state employees, according to Ethics Commission filings. In 2017, the State Chamber gave Thunder tickets worth $6,933 to legislators and other state employees as birthday gifts.
Some state lawmakers received tickets to Thunder games from multiple lobbyists representing the State Chamber in different months — all disclosed to the Ethics Commission as birthday presents.
Rep. Tim Downing, R-Purcell, received tickets to Thunder basketball games worth $446 from four separate lobbyists representing the State Chamber in 2017.
Downing received Thunder tickets from State Chamber lobbyists in January, February, April and December last year, all declared in lobbyist disclosure reports as birthday gifts. Downing’s birthday is actually in March, according to voter registration records.
In a statement, the State Chamber of Oklahoma said it was in compliance with all Ethics Commission rules on gift giving last year. Oklahoma ethics rules allowed each lobbyist to give state lawmakers up to $200 worth of gifts each for special occasions in 2017.
“However, the ethics rules in effect in 2017 did not state what qualifies as a special occasion, birthdays were acceptable,” the State Chamber said. “None of our reports filed for any of the reporting periods prior to January 1, 2018 were rejected or questioned by the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.”
Downing did not respond to an email or phone messages requesting comment.
Lobbyists now blocked from giving birthday gifts
Lobbyists gave some legislators either very belated or very early birthday gifts last year.
In December, Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman and Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City accepted tickets worth $130 each from a lobbyist for Cox Communications to go see Lady Gaga in concert, according to Ethics Commission filings.
Although Lady Gaga played in Oklahoma City on Dec. 9, Munson’s birthday is in May, according to public records. Virgin’s birthday is in October.
In December 2016, Sen. Paul Scott, R-Duncan, accepted a $140 ticket to an Oklahoma City Thunder game as a birthday gift from a lobbyist for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau. Scott’s birthday is in July.
Virgin, Munson and Scott did not respond to requests for comment.
In years past, lobbyists could give state lawmakers gifts declared as birthday presents worth up to $200 a year. Birthday presents to state lawmakers were permissible under a rule that allows gifts for “infrequently occurring occasion of personal significance.”
In 2017, the Oklahoma Ethics Commission revisited the rules and clarified that it intended to “preclude gifts except for events that are considered major life events, such as a marriage, birth or adoption of a child, or retirement.”
As of Jan. 1, annual occasions like birthdays and anniversaries no longer qualify as valid reasons for a lobbyist to bestow a gift upon a lawmaker, said Ashley Kemp, executive director of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.
“The language itself wasn’t really clear,” Kemp said. “Now we have a delineated list and birthdays and anniversaries don’t qualify as a major life event.”
The old rules also allowed the lobbyists to give tickets to sporting events and concerts as birthday presents, even if the gift was bestowed nowhere near the person’s birthday.
Under the new rules, lobbyists must give a gift concurrently with the special occasion.
If the gift is a ticket to a concert or a sporting event, the lobbyist also must attend the event with the lawmaker, Kemp said.
Governor, staff also receive birthday gifts
Gov. Mary Fallin and some of her staff also received birthday presents from lobbyists under the old rules.
In April 2016, Fallin received a ticket to an Oklahoma City Thunder game worth $80 as a birthday present from a lobbyist for Continental Resources Inc. Fallin’s birthday is in December.
In June, Chris Benge, secretary of Native American Affairs and Fallin’s chief of staff accepted two rounds of golf, worth $150 and $118 from two separate lobbyists. Both golf outings were disclosed to the Ethics Commission as birthday presents. Benge’s birthday is in September.
Michael McNutt, a spokesman for Fallin, said the gifts were allowable under ethics rules at the time.
“Governor Fallin and Secretary Benge have no control on how lobbyists categorize these items,” he said.
Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, is one of a small number of state lawmakers who do not accept any gifts. He has a sign posted outside his office at the Oklahoma Capitol, notifying visitors that he will not take any item of value from lobbyists.
Murphey believes gifts help give lobbyists undue influence over lawmakers.
“The most common gifts are entertainment and meals—that’s where the relationship building happens,” Murphey said. “Sporting tickets are key to that.”
In 2017, he authored a bill that would prohibit lobbyists from spending more than 1 cent on gifts to state officials. However, the proposal has yet to been heard in committee.
“I think that it’s just a very sharp divide between us in the Capitol bubble and everyone else,” Murphey said. “Those outside the bubble are of the almost unanimous opinion that it is inappropriate and wrong.”
This story originally stated that Sen. Scott Paul accepted a ticket to an Oklahoma City Thunder game as a gift from the Oklahoma Farm Bureau in December 2017. The date was incorrectly reported to the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. Paul accepted the Thunder ticket in December 2016.