"Who watches the watchmen?" is a question as old as civilization itself. As long as there have been leaders and followers, lawmakers and citizens, the question of how to guard against the excesses of society's guardians has been pondered by pundits and poets alike.
In Oklahoma, the "watchers of the watchmen" are the members of the state Ethics Commission (and, of course, intrepid reporters), but a handful of the "watchmen" think the watchdog agency doesn't have quite the eyes, or the teeth, needed to effectively carry out that task.
"I thought we needed a better agency," said state Rep. Lucky Lamons in explanation of legislation he's proposed to beef up the agency.
"With the investigation of Mike Mass, Gene Stipe, the Auditor (and Inspector Jeff McMahan) and others, I felt it was getting a little bit out of hand," the Democrat from Tulsa added.
That's why he wants to increase the Commission's budget by 70 percent, adding almost $370,000 a year for increased operating expenses, to double the agency's office space to make room for a new training specialist, auditor and attorney, as well as technological improvements and performance increases.
Lamons said he's pitching the budget increase in anticipation of the passage of another Ethics Commission-related law, filed by Rep. David Dank, R-Oklahoma City, called the "Oklahoma Clean Campaign Act."
"There's a good chance, since the Speaker is under investigation, that Dank's legislation will come to pass," he said.
House Speaker Lance Cargill, R-Harrah, has been under scrutiny in recent months for allegedly transferring money in 2004 from the state Republican Party's political action committee to the Oklahoma County party's account, where it was spent on House races outside the county.
Cargill has denied the allegations.
The Speaker, along with his predecessor, former House Speaker Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville, have also been under suspicion for alleged "pay to play" activities--favoring or blocking legislation on the basis of how much lobbyists and interest groups give in campaign contributions.
Again, both have denied the allegations.
"The legislative process has been tainted by suggestions that access and even legislation can be bought," said Dank when he filed his legislation in September, which would, among other provisions, prohibit campaign contributions during the legislation session, while bills are under consideration.
"The Speaker is going to be operating from a weak position, so Dank's legislation will probably pass," predicted Lamons.
But, giving the Ethics Commission rules to enforce and actually equipping them to enforce them are two different things, though, which Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, said is a tactic too-often employed by some lawmakers in the past to neuter the agency.
Reynolds has devoted a considerable amount of attention to the Ethics Commission and its activities in recent years, making him somewhat unpopular in some circles, celebrated in others.
During the 2006 election cycle, he spent the better part of a weekend camped out at its office, copying candidates' campaign finance reports in an effort to keep his colleagues and would-be colleagues accountable.
"I think Mike Reynolds is more knowledgeable about the Ethics Commission than any of us," said Lamons.
As the EC Guru sees it, the agency's ability to "watch the watchmen" is only hampered when it's given additional rules and responsibilities to shoulder, without also receiving the tools to carry out those responsibilities.
Unfunded mandates on the agency create a public appearance of ethics reform, without the reality.
"It appears some people would rather strangle the Ethics Commission than give it the resources it needs to do its job," Reynolds told UTW.
He said he supports Dank and Lamons' proposals, and has tried unsuccessfully in the past to get similar reforms passed.
Last year for instance, Reynolds tried to pass a prohibition against transferring funds from one PAC to another, which is included in Dank's bill.
"There was absolutely no debate on it," he said, recalling that his bill passed the House with little attention or discussion, only to be replaced by House leadership with new language later in a conference committee.
While Reynolds supports his colleagues' proposals for ethics reform, he thinks it should go farther.
"We need to give the Ethics Commission more money, I am persuaded," he said.
However, rather than stopping with a one-time lump sum, which may or may not be repeated by future Legislatures, Reynolds said a permanent funding mechanism should be established by using a percentage of campaign contributions to fund the agency.
And with the money flowing through candidates' coffers, Lamons' proposed $370,000 would be pocket change.
"There are massive amounts of money now changing hands for the 2008 election," said Lamons.
"An open Senate seat will go for a million dollars, and a House seat, easily for half a million," he said.
Lamons, Dank and Reynolds, among others, believe the current state of campaign finance creates the impression among voters that the legislative process is up for sale to the highest bidder.
"People are getting tired of all the shenanigans--we've lost the trust of the voters," said Lamons.
He blames low voter turnout, not on voter apathy, but on voter disillusionment.
"In order for the public to trust their elected officials, we must be monitored by an agency that has some autonomy in the Legislature," Lamons said. "We must fund this agency and give them the resources necessary to oversee the financial transactions conducted by elected officials' campaigns."
When Dank filed his legislation in September, Cargill issued a statement commending him for the proposal, stating that he looked forward to "reviewing the details" of the legislation.
"For far too long in our state's history, there have been too many problems with ethics in state government, from the Supreme Court to the Legislature to the governor's office," the Speaker said.
"That's why I was proud to author last year's House Bill 2101, which has been described by many, including officials at the state Ethics Commission, as the most sweeping and comprehensive legislative ethics reform in years," he added.
Among other rule changes, Cargill's bill banned contributions from being made on Capitol grounds.
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