Monday, September 24, 2012

Shaking Down Lobbyists

Back in February I wrote an article describing the influence of certain lobbyists over the legislative process. I wrote that lobbyists, " . . . are professional relationship manipulation experts and expert strategists, and they know the pressure points to push to get a key lawmaker’s vote. Their attempts to kill a good bill appear to be rather like a game to them. A team of lobbyists can point to a dead bill much like a trophy and use it as a warning to other legislators who might try to upset their deal."

I think the preceding paragraph very aptly describes the procedures used by certain special interests. It is important to note that not every member of the lobbyist profession falls into that description. The lobbying profession in my view isn't that different from the legal profession. Those who enter it know they will be paid to express a certain opinion and will be challenged to filter, bend or distort the truth to the benefit of their client. It is a very difficult profession to enter into and keep a moral compass. But there are certainly those who do just that and I think it is important to keep this in mind. 

Those who enter into these types of professions and manage to draw a clear, unassailable line are individuals of very strong character. They are subject to having to make some very tough and costly decisions in order to do the right thing. Perhaps they decide to turn down the patronage of a client because that client wants them to cross the line. Or maybe they have to stand up to politicians and refuse to do what the politician wants them to do. 

I have taken a pledge to not take gifts or political contributions from lobbyists and lobbyist-represented entities. This pledge has been most liberating because it has allowed me to interact with lobbyists based on the merit of their proposals. I think lobbyists appreciate the fact that we can discuss policy without ever having to worry about if they made a large enough contribution to my campaign or if they included me in an invitation to a lobbyist-sponsored dinner. This relationship also allows them to communicate their frustrations with the current system. 

Based on their feedback, it is easy to see that too many politicians in the past made a game out of seeing how much money they could milk out of lobbyists' bank accounts. 

Consider the following examples from recent years mostly involving lawmakers who are no longer in office:

Lawmakers raised money from lobbyists in order to sponsor out-of-state trips to various events hosted by different associations. A lobbyist would be solicited to make a donation to the fund. The lawmaker who solicited the donation would receive a "commission" of 50% of the amount raised. In essence, lobbyists who donated to "sponsor" a legislator's trip wouldn't just be paying for the trip, but would also put hundreds of extra spending dollars in the lawmaker's pocket, whether they knew it or not. This presumably went unreported and was not reviewable by the taxpayers.

Don't think for a minute that these lawmakers were actually going to spend that money on a trip. Once in attendance at these out-of-state conferences, some lawmakers used to make a sport out of finding lobbyists to take them to the best restaurants and run up a huge tab. In one such case, a group of Oklahoma lawmakers managed to find a team of three lobbyists to take them out to eat. The politicians took the opportunity to order extremely costly items and very expensive wine. When the bill for hundreds of dollars was provided to one of the lobbyists, the lobbyist asked the waiter to please divide the bill between the three lobbyists so they could share the cost. It fell to the waiter to inform the shocked lobbyist that they had already divided the bill and this bill for hundreds of dollars represented just one-third of the cost.

Certain lawmakers didn't have a problem double crossing their financiers who pay for this expensive game. I can recall the frustration of one lobbyist who described how he was working a vote. A lawmaker gave him his word that he would vote with the lobbyist's position. The lawmaker almost immediately broke his word and voted the other way. Later that same day, when it was time for lunch, the lawmaker called the lobbyist and without missing a beat asked the lobbyist if he would take the lawmaker and his friends out for lunch. Surely a person with the tiniest amount of shame should have at least waited for a couple of days before asking for stuff again.

These stories represent events in year's past. I do think the situation improves each year as the old guard politicians are term limited and a new wave of citizen legislators replaces them. Next week I plan to describe how term limits continue to make a difference as those legislators who were around when the Legislature was dominated by powerful elitists politicians are becoming fewer and fewer in number.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Disqualifying Candidates Based on Occupation

I believe our nation's founding fathers designed Congress to be made up of citizens from varied professions and occupations. This concept was applied to the legislatures of the several states including Oklahoma. Legislators naturally tend to gravitate to the area of policy to which they are familiar and I enjoy watching the contributions made from those with expertise in a given subject matter. This varied representation proves a great benefit to the taxpayer.

I try to keep all campaign material from each race in which I personally participate. This allows me to review the subject matter in my materials to ensure I am staying true to the platform on which I campaigned.

It is interesting to review the opponents' material as well. Over the years, I was invariably on the receiving end of one of those a comparison pieces contrasting my occupation with the other candidate. You have probably seen these types of mailers where one candidate places his best photo against a grainy or even altered photo of his opponent and lists off all of the factors which make him a better candidate. When describing my occupation opposition material would either list me as a security officer, or actually the more pejorative "night security guard", corrections officer, or perhaps the pejorative "prison guard".

Those materials never told the reader of my experience owning a private security agency. They certainly didn't disclose the important role corrections officers play in the public safety venue. They simply sought to disqualify a candidate based on a generic occupational description.

The longer I serve the more I am starting to realize how my personal occupational history has continued to shape what I do.

Owning a security agency highlighted the plight of the small business owner who must deal with government regulation on a day to day basis. I am strongly motivated to author and advance modernization processes to make government much less burdensome on the small businessman. I still cringe whenever I see an antiquated government paperwork-based application process. We have worked hard to eliminate these and I hope to have additional good new to report about this in the near future.

Perhaps no position better prepared me for holding elected office then working as a corrections officer (CO). As a CO I was assigned to guard a unit housing 120 offenders. As you might imagine, the odds are always against the CO who must learn to work with the offenders while also maintaining a firm line. Prison management understandably fears COs will become co-opted. After all they are co-located on their own with the offenders for hours on end. Certain offenders have little else to do then figure out and deploy complex physiological processes to co-opt the CO with whom they have much more access than prison management.

Oftentimes the co-option starts with the offender becoming friends of the CO and asking for very small and mostly meaningless favors such a giving the offender a prohibited item or other policy violation. Over time the scope of these requests grow. When the CO pushes back or refuses the offender may blackmail him by threatening to disclose his past violations of policy. Backed into a corner the CO becomes a tool of the 120 offenders he must work with each shift. COs are taught that the primary way to survive in this environment is to take a firm and consistent stand and never cross that line.

I think this training was pivotal in directing me to establish a similar line prior to taking office as a legislator. I determined to never accept gifts or political contributions from lobbyists. Too many elected officials go into office without setting a similar line. The special interests immediately befriend the just elected official before he has time to figure out the system. Over time the official risks becoming co-opted by the process and the special interests. Even if they see the light they are too far in and can not back out easily. These elected officials risk becoming little more than tools of the special interests. I think the taxpayers would greatly benefit if each new elected official had taken CO training.

In this case, I don't think it was a bad thing for the voters to elect a "prison guard".

When the Government Refuses to Follow the Law

Imagine the challenge faced by the citizen who feels the call to become civically involved and hold government accountable only to be denied access to transparency records to which he is legally entitled. Or put yourself in the place of the conscientious journalist who has been trained to do the necessary research to present a story in its full context only to hit a stone wall when asking for necessary and legally public government documents. Unfortunately, these scenarios occur many times each year in Oklahoma.

There are hundreds of government entities all across the state that must comply with Oklahoma open meetings and open records law. The large number of government groups has seemingly enticed certain legal firms to create a niche industry out of providing nuanced legal advice, allowing the governing boards to claim they don’t have to comply with even the most basic of transparency laws.

This was most recently brought to light when a member of the Sperry school board resigned. In his resignation he exposed the relationship between one of these legal firms and the district’s administration. Shockingly, the board had justified their failure to provide in a timely manner the board members’ packets to the public based on advice from the law firm of Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold. In fact, the packets were not provided to the public until after the meeting of the board - when it was too late for the public to express their opinion because votes had already been taken. Ironically, the school district superintendent also appears to have claimed he didn’t need to release the legal bills paid to that law firm.

This story brought back some rather painful memories of a nearly identical scenario that took place in Logan County just a few years ago. For years the local hospital government board constituted as a beneficiary of local county government had operated at a deficit, consuming approximately two million taxpayer dollars each year. Understandably, local officials started to question why the operation was not profitable in light of the fact that Logan County was one of the fastest growing counties in the state. Even with the rapidly growing consumer base, the hospital was still running a large deficit.

County Commissioner Mark Sharpton sent the hospital governing board a very basic request asking to know who was on the payroll and how much they were being paid. This type of open records request is the most basic and fundamental way of keeping the government accountable to those who are footing the bill. If the public cannot see who is on the payroll, all manner of impropriety can take place with taxpayer dollars, such as the retention of ghost employees, for instance.

Not only did the board refuse to honor the law and the request, they spent thousands more taxpayer dollars paying for high power attorneys to fight the request. Sharpton never received the documentation. If he couldn’t get it, even though he was on the board of the beneficiary, imagine how hard it would have been for a local citizen or report to fight their way through the maze of attorneys to get this very basic information.

The State Integrity Investigation recently released a report grading the transparency laws in the fifty states. Unfortunately, they gave Oklahoma an F. This grade was due in part to the fact that there is no single state official charged with enforcing open meetings and open records laws. When someone has been denied their legal rights, whether they are civic minded citizens, journalists or county commissioners, they do not have a transparency expert within state government to whom they can turn.

This must change! During the next legislative session we must advance the proposal to rectify this failure in policy and ensure Oklahoma’s transparency laws are properly enforced. Citizens should never again be denied their legal right to transparency simply because a governing board has the audacity to spend thousands of taxpayer dollars to hire high power attorneys to get out of following the law.

Taxpayers to Save 40 Million Dollars Each Year

Oklahoma taxpayers are set to save 40 million dollars during the current state budget year and each year thereafter according to a recent report. The Information Services Division of the state's Office of Finance released its fiscal year end report detailing the savings from the recently enacted plan to consolidate state government information technology processes. The report shows savings estimates continuing to climb and demonstrates that approximately 40 million of annual savings has already been achieved even though many state agencies still await the consolidation process. The savings can be attributed in part to lower software costs due to the fact that state agencies purchasing power has been combined and a 17% reduction in the number of IT positions needed to maintain the consolidated IT infrastructure. The plan also details additional levels of cost avoidance that are in addition to the 40 million of savings. This includes $1.8 million of potential cost avoidance after the centralised IT operation rectified software licensing-related liabilities previously incurred by state agencies. When the Legislature passed the proposal it required IT officials to realized a savings of at least 15% of the state's IT spend. The report demonstrates that the consolidation has met this goal. Last fall, Oklahoma Chief Information Officer Alex Pettit told the House Government Modernization Committee that the consolidation had allowed 30 million of year over year savings to occur. On the morning of September 11th, Pettit will again testify before the committee and will inform committee members of the newest savings numbers. Pettit is expected to field questions on his department's mitigation of legacy IT information security liabilities and the potential for additional savings as the consolidation continues. "CIO Pettit is doing a fantastic job implementing this plan," explained the concept's legislative author State Representative David Derby, R-Owasso. "During the next legislative year we are committed to continuing passing the legislation to enable these savings to continue." The IT consolidation provides a great example of a modernization reform that will save millions of dollars each year," stated House Modernization Committee Chairman Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie. "The report demonstrates that the plan has been successful and it is now our job as policy makes to export the concept to other policy venues to ensure even more savings can be realized." Pettit's testimony is expected to take place at approximately 11:00 am on September 11th in committee room 432a at the Capitol building. The meeting is open and the public encouraged to attend.

It Is Time To End Pork Earmarks

The issue of pork earmarks or legislative pass-throughs has received a bit of public scrutiny within the past few weeks after the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs, an Oklahoma City television station, and one of the state's largest newspapers investigated and criticized the ongoing practice. The Oklahoma Constitution prevents the Oklahoma Legislature from appropriating money directly to entities which are not state agencies. This very important prohibition attempts to separate pork politics from the way your taxpayer dollars are spent. If one legislator can win approval for appropriating money to friends back in his district, he will probably be required to trade favors -- and other legislators will do the same. In the end, taxpayer money will be spent based not on the merits of the entity receiving the largess, but on the deal-making political power of those in the Legislature. The separation of policy making functions from spending processes is one of the most important concepts of good government. An entity who receives money from the government should always have to compete with other entities through a clear and transparent bidding process by which a contract is awarded to the best bidder. An entity should never receive an award simply because legislators pulled political strings. When legislators are given the power to directly appropriate to a specific organization, the climate is set for corruption. Legislators will naturally become heavily influenced by contribution from those who are close to the entities receiving the award. Historically, legislators have gotten around the constitutional prohibition as follows: instead of trying to directly appropriate money to a private entity, the Legislature has simply approved a "pass-through" appropriation by first appropriating money to a state agency and then passing a law telling the agency how to spend the money. What is worse, this was also accomplished at times by simple verbal direction. A state agency or a regional government entity such as the local Association of Central Oklahoma Governments might get a call from a legislative staffer telling them that they were going to be given some money and then directing them how to spend it. In my view, all forms of pass-throughs are inappropriate, but these verbal pass-throughs are most unethical. They are not transparent and they are carried out by very powerful lawmakers who cannot prove legislative intent. Over the last three budget years, it appears that all pass-through appropriations have been made by verbal or written direction but few, if any, were approved by a vote of the Legislature. Usually these appropriations occur through the Tourism, Agriculture or Commerce state agencies. A few months ago I wrote about the role that the new transperancy tools such as or are playing in exposing these appropriations. In the past, a pass-through might never have received public purview. However, as you may recall, I wrote about how even though pass-through laws were not being approved by a vote of the Legislature. We could use Open Books to see the ongoing expenditures to an entity simply known as "A Pocket Full Of Hope," which had previously received statutory pass-throughs. This brought into question the possibility that well-placed legislators were continuing to give orders to agencies to pass-through the money without a vote of the Legislature ever approving the expenditure. I very much believe that with the implementation of these new tools, the work by the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs, the attention provided by the press, and the new wave of reform minded lawmakers, the days of the legislative pass-through are very limited. In the past, it wasn't easy to talk to other lawmakers about the need to end this practice. Today it is very different. A significant number of lawmakers have been disturbed by the recent reports and I think they are the catalyst to ending the practice as soon as next year. Those who continue to participate in these practices are now in the minority. I am glad to report that the days of the pork earmarks are limited.