Cargill Faces Test At GOP Retreat

Monday, October 15th 2007, 7:14 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Republican House Speaker Lance Cargill, who is at the center of campaign fundraising controversies, is facing a challenge to his leadership from within his own ranks before he completes a year on the job.

Representative John Wright, R-Broken Arrow, the Republican caucus chairman, served notice last week that he will be a candidate for speaker when GOP House members gather in Ardmore on Monday and Tuesday for their fall retreat.

Wright has been a vocal supporter of more openness in the lawmaking process, voting against motions to cut off debate and urging consideration of all legislators' bills in committee.

``I've been trying to run a very open process that is absolutely beyond approach,'' he said. ``This is just an opportunity to provide the caucus with a choice, instead of not having a discussion.

``It's really not about Lance, per se, it's about the caucus having an opportunity and to see if the caucus wants to go another way.''

Representative Gregg Piatt, R-Ardmore, said he expects a motion will be made to delay a vote on electing a speaker for the next two-year term.

Piatt, the majority floor leader and a Cargill supporter, orchestrated a press release last week in which 10 House GOP leaders voiced their support for the 36-year-old speaker.

Cargill issued a statement welcoming the challenge. ``It's a healthy process for our caucus and the Legislature,'' he said.

While in Ardmore, some Republican legislators will enjoy a day of golf at the private Dornick Hills Golf and Country Club, paid for by business and lobbying interests at the Capitol through the Ardmore Chamber of Commerce and the Ardmore Tourism Authority.

Wes Stucky, the chief operating officer of the chamber, confirmed that some lobbyists were invited to be sponsors of the golf sessions of lawmakers at a cost of $50 per legislator.

Stucky said invitations to be sponsors were sent to local businesses ``and others than we thought we could tap,'' including Capitol lobbyists.

``I thought they were potential suspects,'' he quipped.

He said another official handled the invitations and he did not know if any GOP legislators or people connected with them provided a list of potential sponsors.

Piatt said his office may have provided a list, but he did not know for sure.

Stucky said it is common for the chamber to sponsor golf tournaments.

Stucky also is chief executive officer of the Ardmore Development Authority, which received a $15 million grant for airport improvements from the state's Opportunity Fund. Money for the fund was appropriated by the Legislature, but the governor calls the shots on allocations.

During the legislative session, Cargill drew criticism after he summoned lobbyists to one-on-one meetings at a political consultant's office to seek contributions to Republican political action committees and for the speaker's ``100 Ideas Initiative.''

The program to collect ideas for state policy in the next century of statehood is headed by Thad Balkman, a former House member who lost a re-election race last year, spoiling his plans to run for caucus chairman. Instead, Wright was elected.

Democrats charged that Cargill's session with lobbyists was symbolic of a ``pay-for-play'' atmosphere at the Capitol, where lobbyists with interest in legislation are pressured to make political donations.

Most recently, questions have been raised about fundraising activities in 2004 by a House GOP political action committee headed by Cargill. One question was how checks made out to the Oklahoma Republican Party wound up at in the ``Victory Fund'' of the Oklahoma County Republican Committee.

Former House Speaker Todd Hiett, among others, said they intended the money to be used by the state party.

Cargill has denied any improprieties.

AT&T, which is often listed on lobbyist reports as paying for athletic tickets and golfing outings for lawmakers, is making a $400 contribution to the golfing event in Ardmore through a local representative, spokesman Andy Morgan confirmed.

Piatt said officials had checked with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission to make sure ethics rules were being followed.

``It is a fundraising golf tournament that the chamber is putting on,'' he said. ``My understanding is that they will be making money off of it'' for charitable purposes.

Piatt said the money that goes toward paying the golfing fees of lawmakers will be reported to the ethics panel.