Amy Lester, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- When looking at how much legislators received in free stuff, the Oklahoma Impact Team found seven legislators and lobbyists for three companies or associations violated the rules. They either accepted more than $100 in gifts or meals or they spent more than $100 on one person. No one knew about these violations until we told them.
"I wasn't aware of the situation until you brought light to it," said Representative Steve Kouplen, (D) Beggs.
Kouplen was the first one we noticed. He said yes to free meals from the N.R.A. too many times. The N.R.A. spent $200.60 on him during the first six months of this year. Kouplen didn't know about it because he didn't keep track of how much lobbyists spent.
"It was my understanding that was the responsibility of the lobbyists to make sure that they were in compliance and not spend over the limit," said Kouplen.
He's not alone. Representative Sam Buck also totaled $200.60 from the NRA. Representative Al McAffrey had free stuff totaling $145.50 from the NRA and Representative Terry Harrison's total was $147.35. Representative Cory Williams cashed in at $188.85. All of the lawmakers said they had no idea and are paying the NRA back for the overages.
As for the NRA, they didn't know about this either, until we discovered it. The lobbyist, Ashley Varner, gave us this statement, "As soon as NRA was made aware of this mistake, steps were taken to address the matter. We have contacted the Oklahoma Ethics Commission and we're working with them to ensure full compliance."
Lobbyists for AT&T violated the rules by spending about $7 over on Representative Ron Peters. An AT&T spokesperson said this was not intentional, it was a mathematical mistake. Peters said he has no problem paying that back.
The Tarrant Regional Water District paid for meals worth nearly $30 too much for Representative Colby Schwartz. Schwartz said he's disappointed in this, he too relies on the lobbyists to keep track.
Lobbyist Hopper Smith emailed the following statement, "We are very appreciative of Amy Lester for bringing this oversight to our attention...We have contacted Rep. Colby Schwartz so that he can reconcile the $28.85 overage. We will ensure that the matter is fully resolved and that the Ethics Commission Report is amended as soon as possible to reflect full compliance with the rules for expenditure. Again, we appreciate the diligence of Amy Lester so that we can correct this error."
We brought what we found to the Oklahoma Ethics Commission's Executive Director Marilyn Hughes. She was surprised that lobbyists and lawmakers went over during the first six months.
"Keep records, you need to know what's being given to you," warns Hughes.
She explained that lobbyists can get in trouble just as easily as lawmakers for exceeding $100 in a year's time.
"There's an appearance of impropriety if you just leave it to somebody else to be responsible for your compliance with rules," said Hughes. "If you don't want to keep records, don't accept anything of value, pay your own way."
But why didn't the Ethics Commission catch this itself? The agency is short staffed and hasn't looked at the current lobbyist reports. The staff didn't even send out warning letters for last year's violations, until last month.
Thirty-two legislators, 11 lobbyists and two state employees broke the $100 rule.
Ethics Commissioners will be told about what we found. They will either do nothing, issue private or public reprimands, launch an investigation, enter into a settlement or take the violators to court. Fines are up to $15,000 per violation.
At least one legislator plans to take more initiative, so he doesn't go over again.
"I assure you in the future, I will mention that to any individual who is picking up the bill to make sure they do not spend more than they are legally allowed," said Representative Kouplen.
In the first six months of the year, lobbyists spent $89,844 on gifts or meals for lawmakers, their staff and other state employees. That's up 26 percent from the same time period last year.