By Amy Lester, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- There's no question former legislators leave office to work for the state, but is that practice legal? The Oklahoma Impact Team started to wonder after the recent scandal involving legislators allegedly creating and funding a position for a lawmaker at the Medical Examiner's Office.
"The Constitution to me is pretty clear. It says that you can't go to work for a state agency, take a state job," said Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City.
Reynolds said he feels strongly that legislators should wait two years after their terms in office end before working for the state. After all, that is what the Constitution says.
"They probably knew that legislators would run the risk of being tempted by setting up jobs and increasing pay or putting pressure on people to get jobs they really didn't deserve," Reynolds said.
So, if the Constitution says that, why do former legislators not always wait two years? They don't have to because of several Attorney General's opinions. The opinions are as good as law. They say that as long as former legislators are not paid with state appropriated dollars and the legislature did not create the position, then lawmakers do not have to wait two years.
"I wanted to make sure we were completely legal before we went to first base on this deal," said Howard Hendrick, Director of the Department of Human Services. "I want to obey the law, we always want to obey the law."
Hendrick resigned from the Senate in 1998. Two days later, he took over as director of D.H.S.
"I wouldn't have been a candidate if I thought it was inappropriate for me to be a candidate," Hendrick said.
Hendrick's salary was paid for with federal and matching state funds.
That's okay according to an Attorney General's opinion.
Hendrick said he believes he did nothing wrong and the agency did nothing wrong when it hired him for $10,000 a month.
"It wasn't a new position and there wasn't any funding that was inappropriate. The same kind of funding that was always used to fund the agency was used, so there was not a person taking advantage of their position," Hendrick said.
Hendrick is not alone. Several other former lawmakers took jobs at universities or state agencies less than two years after the end of their terms in office including Angela Monson, Cal Hobson, Ben Brown, Don Garrison, Danny Hilliard, Fred Morgan, Kevin Easley and Glen Johnson.
"The key to this is to follow the law," said Glen Johnson, former Speaker of the House and President of Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant.
Glen Johnson spent 14 years in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Less than a year after he left office, he got the president's job at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. His salary was more than $114,500 a year.
"I participated in an open, national, competitive search, was the successful applicant for that position and then all measures were taken to carefully and fully comply with the law. I think that was the right thing to do and the appropriate thing to do. I was honored to be selected," Johnson said.
Johnson's salary, benefits and retirement were paid for with auxiliary funds. That money comes from vending/bookstore revenue and other non-appropriated dollars.
Johnson and the other former lawmakers can do this because of the Attorney General's opinions, but not everyone agrees with that interpretation including State Auditor and Inspector Steve Burrage.
"Personally, I don't think they should be able to be employed for two years after they leave office, regardless of where the money comes from," Burrage said.
Burrage said often times the federal and state money is co-mingled. He said he thinks the spirit of the Constitution precludes lawmakers from working for the state for two years.
"I am not an attorney, I am not practicing law, I have full respect for the Attorney General's opinion, but the Constitution did not distinguish between state and federal funds," Burrage said.
Reynolds echoed the auditor's opinion. That's why he said he plans on proposing legislation to clarify the Constitution and bring an end to this practice.
"These people there are self serving. They weren't here to be public servants, they were here to apparently embellish their own careers. That's a sad situation," Reynolds said.
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