A measure introduced in the Oklahoma Legislature this week that, if passed, would have allowed politicians to use campaign money for personal expenses was an attempt to prove a point in budget negotiations, its author told The Frontier.
Hours after The Frontier published a story on Thursday evening about a proposed amendment by Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, to House Bill 3996 that would have removed the state’s prohibition on politicians using campaign money for personal expenses, Thompson withdrew the amendment from consideration.
Thompson, who is chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told The Frontier that he had submitted the proposed amendment to the bill to prove a point about “transparency” during budget negotiations with the House, and that the amendment was “never intended to go anywhere.”
“That bill was never meant to be run and would have never been run,” Thompson said.
Thompson said House Bill 3996 itself, which passed the House on March 9 by a vote of 62-33, will not also not be heard, as the Legislature nears the end of this year’s session.
“It’s not going anywhere,” Thompson said. “It’s all dead.”
The bill was originally authored by House Speaker Pro Tempore Harold Wright, R-Weatherford, with Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, coming on board as principal Senate author later.
Under the language authored by Wright, political committees would be allowed 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.
It also allowed for traditional political action committees that are used to donate 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 by funneling money through nonprofit groups.
The bill would also require Ethics Commission staff to have personal knowledge of a rule violation by a campaign committee before filing a complaint against it to open an investigation, and would have allowed state elected officials to solicit donations via their official social media page — as long as “state resources” were not used.
On Thursday, the Oklahoma Ethics Commission’s official Twitter account wrote on Thursday that House Bill 3996 would make “significant changes to the Ethics Rules by making campaign finance in Oklahoma significantly less transparent, more easily abused, removes contribution limits in key areas, and impedes the Commission’s ability to file complaints.”
Neither Wright nor Rader responded to phone messages left at their offices by The Frontier on Thursday.
After passing the House, the bill was assigned to the Senate Rules Committee, but it was withdrawn from the Rules Committee on Monday, had its title restored and substitute language was submitted by Thompson in the form of a proposed floor amendment. The bill was listed as direct to calendar — meaning it would get a floor vote without going through a committee — and Rader was removed as author and replaced by Thompson as Senate author.
Thompson said the bill had been brought up during budget negotiations with members of the House earlier this week, when one of the House members brought up the issue of transparency.
“We were talking about budget, we were talking about ethics and campaigns or whatever, and I said ‘if you want to talk transparency, let’s talk transparency,’” Thompson said. “And here sometimes, you have to make a strong statement to get a strong reaction.”
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 that is not related to campaigning for office.
Personal use of campaign funds is illegal at both the state and 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.
“If we want transparency in all expenses, then that’s fine, let’s get transparency in all expenses,” Thompson said. “And so I made a point. It might not have been a wise way to make a point on my part. But I made the point and now pulled everything back.
“There’s probably a better way to make a point,” he said, “but nevertheless, it worked.”
Thompson said he would never support such legislation.
“Folks who know me know I would never do that. That’s not who I am.”
The Legislature sent budget bills to Gov. Kevin Stitt earlier this week. Stitt vetoed the bills, but that veto was overridden by votes in the Legislature.