Is It Pork Barrel Spending? You Decide

Wednesday, November 28th 2007, 10:00 pm
By: News On 6

"Earmarks" are getting a lot of attention in Congress right now. However, the process of using taxpayer money to fund pet projects is not exclusive to Washington, D.C. Oklahoma state lawmakers have been using the same pork-barrel spending system for decades. News On 6 anchor Terry Hood in a News On 6 Investigation reports on why it became so popular.

"We could've used a whole lot more," said former state senator J. Berry Harrison.

Earmarks helped make J. Berry Harrison a popular man in his hometown. In his 16 years in the state Senate, he approved all kinds of handouts for his district. One of the biggest was a $100,000 grant for the renovation of Fairfax's famous Tallchief Theatre. Harrison agrees with the old saying that it's only pork-barrel spending when you don't get any.

"Probably the criticism might come from another senator's district who would like to have the money for himself," said J. Berry Harrison.

"The money that was spent in my district, or whoever got it, is probably the best money spent," said State Rep. Lucky Lamons, (D) Sand Springs.

State representative Lucky Lamons says earmarks allowed him to help all kinds of worthy causes. But he acknowledges some state lawmakers found a way to abuse the system.

"Was there an avenue? Sure. My father used to have a saying, he used to say, 'son, not all knights are noble not all maidens fair,'" said State Rep. Lucky Lamons.

The state legislature uses appropriations bills to spell out how it spends most of your tax dollars. But party leaders also set aside millions of dollars for certain lawmakers to earmark as “special project" or "pass through" money. The money earned that name because it "passed through" Oklahoma's 11 sub-state planning districts, called Councils of Government, or COGs for short.

Legislators have been funding earmarks through the COGs for decades, making it difficult to track who asked for them, and where the money actually went. The News On 6 contacted each individual COG and dig through five years' worth of documents. We uncovered millions of dollars of your money being spent on earmarks from Altus to Vinita, from Broken Bow to Beaver.

You paid to fix the fence at the confederate cemetery in Atoka.

You bought two ceremonial bugles for the VFW post in Sand Springs.

Spent $260,000 to promote tourism at the Har-Ber Village at Grand Lake.

Paid for a rodeo to benefit the town of Chelsea.

Lights at the ballpark in Verden.

You spent $100,000 for international recruitment at the Nigh Institute in Edmond.
You built a health facility in Beckham County.

You paid the salary of a translator at Birth Choice of Oklahoma.

And you furnished the cash to complete the "Headin' to Market" statue at the Stockyards in Oklahoma City.

"Did some people take advantage of it? You betcha. Are they under investigation? You betcha. Is one going to go to the penitentiary? Pretty much it looks like it is," said State representative Lucky Lamons.

Lucky Lamons is referring to Mike Mass. Mass is the former Hartshorne state representative who pleaded guilty to mail fraud in what prosecutors say was a scheme to use the “pass-through” system to set up his own kickback. He’s awaiting sentencing in an ongoing federal investigation that involves at least three other former legislators.

"I think the governor saw this and thought there was some inappropriate money being sent and that's why he vetoed it," said State Rep. Lucky Lamons.

The Governor turned off the special project pipeline in 2005, but not before lawmakers used millions of dollars for questionable earmarks. The University of Tulsa got $20,000 to buy video equipment for its football team. How would a private university receive state funds for its athletic program?

"They're all constituent requests. Whatever projects that I would have supported were all constituent requests," said former state senator Kevin Easley.

According to records from the Eastern Oklahoma Development District, a COG based in Muskogee, Kevin Easley earmarked that money. Easley lives in Broken Arrow, and is a TU graduate. Now the CEO of the Grand River Dam Authority, Easley says he does not recall details of the earmarks he sent through the EODD when he was a state senator. That would include the $225,000 which records show he earmarked to a group called the Broken Arrow Community Center Foundation.

"That was a project that the voters of Broken Arrow voted for, and supported and constituents had asked for," said Kevin Easley.

Broken Arrow voters did approve a million-dollar bond issue to buy land for a new community center on the east side, a project that is still in the planning stages. But those voters may not have known about Senator Easley's personal connection to it.

"My wife's a volunteer and once the land is secured she will continue to be a volunteer," said Kevin Easley.

But the chairman of the foundation says Easley's wife was more than a volunteer.

"She worked hard on, putting all this together," said Larry Allison with the BA Community Center Foundation.

Broken Arrow realtor Larry Allison says the foundation hired her as executive director. He also says one of the board members is her father. That means two of former senator Easley's family members were involved with the foundation, when he earmarked $225,000 in state funds for it.

News On 6 asked Larry Allison. “You can see where that, why some people might object to that." Larry Allison responded, "Well, I can tell you that she worked very, very hard in what we were trying to accomplish. And that's all I can tell you. How other people look at it is their problem."

The News On 6 wanted to talk to Dee Ann Easley about her work with the Broken Arrow Community Center Foundation, but she never returned our phone calls. Governor Brad Henry used a line-item veto to temporarily halt earmarks, but there is no law to stop lawmakers from using them again.

WEB EXTRA: State Representative Lucky Lamons Interview About Special Project Money