Officials say Ethics Commission underfunded

Monday, April 28th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The state Ethics Commission is underfunded and forced to rely on lawmakers _ the same people it oversees and sometimes investigates _ for most of its funding, officials said.

``It is important to know that the commission is arguably the poorest agency in state government,'' Executive Director Marilyn Hughes wrote in an internal report obtained by The Daily Oklahoman. ``Because our constitutional powers are so broad, the Legislature has chosen to 'check' us with an underfunded budget.

``This was true in good times when we have been reduced to borrowing paper from the Election Board,'' Hughes wrote. ``Now that we have entered revenue shortfalls, our situation has become dire. The agency is in desperate straits.''

The Ethics Commission oversees the financing of state campaigns, the conduct of 40,000 state employees and officers, and the registration of state lobbyists. It also is charged with investigating alleged violations of ethical rules.

It is led by a revolving group of five appointed commissioners chosen from different congressional districts. They meet 10 to 12 times a year and are paid only for their travel.

Current and former commissioners say the agency does the best it can with only seven employees and a budget of about a half a million dollars.

``They are more of an administrative agency than an investigative agency,'' said former Chairman Jim Hamilton, who resigned in February.

Hamilton, a former state senator and representative, said ethics commissioners have no realistic ability to do in-depth investigations with only one investigator.

Commissioners also have questioned whether they can afford to seek fines in court over suspected violations.

``I don't think that that would necessarily stop us if we came to that point, but to proceed with a prosecution costs a lot of money and time,'' Commissioner Ken Elliot, an Oklahoma City attorney, said last week.

The Ethics Commission started out the fiscal year in July with a budget of $524,409, with most of the money earmarked for salaries. Almost 92 percent was to come from the Legislature. Commissioners have since been told they won't get $37,862 of the expected appropriations.

All seven employees will be furloughed three days through June 30 because of the cuts.

Gov. Brad Henry in February suggested cutting next year's appropriations for the agency by $200,000. Henry suggested the commission could make up the difference by collecting annual registration fees from lobbyists and their employers.

Oklahoma is one of eight states that doesn't charge a lobbyist registration fee. Under the proposal, more than $210,000 could be collected.

Hughes wrote in an internal report in February that even if the proposal passes, commissioners have qualms about whether the agency could function.

The Ethics Commission isn't allowed to keep fines it imposes and also owes $37,000 in legal fees in a federal lawsuit.

Last week at a House subcommittee hearing on the commission's budget, some lawmakers suggested the agency could save money by requiring fewer reports from candidates. One representative also questioned whether the Ethics Commission and the state Council on Judicial Complaints could merge.

The commissioner with the most seniority, attorney John DeWitt Luton, agreed the agency's funding is not as much as it needed, but said it is not intentional.

``I don't think it's a deliberate act on the part of the Legislature,'' said Luton, a former state senator. ``They're terribly strapped for funds. I can understand that, having been there for many years.

``They're doing the best they can with the problems that they face.''

The Ethics Commission planned to hire another investigator in the next year or two. Instead, ethics officials are worried they will have to lay off an employee next year.