Sunday, November 19, 2023

Small: Questionable ethics at Ethics Commission

Questionable ethics at Ethics Commission
By Jonathan Small

One of the most important jobs of a state attorney general is to protect citizens from overreaching government, so Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond deserves praise for reining in the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.

In a letter sent to the Oklahoma Ethics Commission on Sept. 21, Drummond told the agency that day’s meeting should be rescheduled “due to clear violations of the Open Meeting Act which have come to my attention.”

Citing discussions with Eddie Fields, a member of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, and a review of the commission’s July meeting minutes, Drummond said discussion of job qualifications for a new executive director and discussion of the associated search process should not have occurred in executive session, which is closed to the public.

He also said commissioners failed to take a public vote concerning the job posting for the executive director and associated qualifications for the position. Drummond also noted that the commission “did not vote to establish the search committee and set its operating parameters.”

He concluded the Oklahoma Ethics Commission’s apparent actions “represent serious violations of both the letter and spirit of Oklahoma’s Open Meeting Act.”

The Oklahoma Ethics Commission has since extended the search for its next executive director and junked a proposal that would have allowed a committee led by current Oklahoma Ethics Commission Director Ashley Kemp to control the vetting process for choosing Kemp’s replacement.

This is not the only instance in which the Ethics Commission has drawn scrutiny.

In 2018, the commission considered imposing regulations on “indirect lobbying” and defined that nebulous phrase in such a way average citizens could have been required publicly report routine communications with lawmakers, or even include disclaimers on their social-media posts regarding state policy.

In 2020, the Oklahoma Ethics Commission considered regulating “informational materials.” And they did so after Chief U.S. District Judge Timothy D. DeGiusti had issued a preliminary injunction barring the Oklahoma Ethics Commission from enforcing a similar, prior version of that rule.

The Ethics Commission had tried to prevent the Institute for Justice from distributing a $15 book on a policy issue to officers and employees of the state’s legislative and executive branches. The Institute for Justice successfully argued the Ethics Commission rule violated the organization’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Had the commission adopted the proposed rules in either 2018 or 2020, most legal experts predicted courts would quickly strike them down as illegal.

It is ironic, but not shocking, that a government entity with the word “ethics” literally in its name is apparently engaged in secret work behind closed doors to keep the public in the dark. If “truth in labelling” laws applied to government agencies along with open-meetings law, the Oklahoma Ethics Commission’s legal troubles would be even more severe.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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