The creation of an Ethics Commission (EC) reflects a reform movement that began in the 1960s and led to new methods for supervising political campaign practices and regulating the behavior of public officials at state and federal levels. As early as 1908 Oklahoma had laws requiring the disclosure of campaign expenditures. Following the lead of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, the Oklahoma Legislature tightened the rules in the Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Act of 1974.
The most powerful impetus to reform came as a result of the Oklahoma county commissioner scandal of the early 1980s. Governors Nigh and Bellmon responded by seeking a strong Ethics Commission. The effort culminated in 1990 when a successful initiative petition added Article XXIX (approved by a two to one margin) to the Oklahoma Constitution.
The Ethics Commission began its work on July 1, 1991. Its mission is to "promulgate rules of ethical conduct for campaigns for elective state office and for campaigns for initiatives and referenda," to promulgate rules of "ethical conduct for state officers and employees," and to establish civil penalties for violation of these rules. The commission's work is conducted by five unpaid commissioners and a professional staff.
Commissioners serve a term of five years. No more than three may be from one political party, and each must be from a different congressional district. Each owes appointment to a different source: the governor, the attorney general, the House speaker, the Senate president pro tempore, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Legislative review and confirmation of appointments is not required. The commissioners appoint an executive director and other staff. Other provisions of Article XXIX require an annual legislative appropriation sufficient to enable the EC to perform its duties, grant investigative and subpoena power, permit the levying of civil penalties for violation of ethics laws, and authorize the issuance of binding ethics interpretations. Since the commission's inception its executive director has been Marilyn Hughes.
The EC enjoys an unusual autonomy because its authorization is explicitly constitutional, rather than merely statutory. It has the constitutional authority to devise ethics rules on its own. Its rules must be presented to each house of the legislature on the second day of each session and may be rejected by joint resolution, but they become effective if not specifically disapproved. The EC follows the same procedure to repeal and modify rules. The entire initiative in the rules formulation process thus lies with this independent commission.
The most important event in the EC's brief history came in 1992, when the legislature rejected altogether the first set of proposed ethics rules and then developed an ethics statute of its own. This action, in the view of the commission, undermined the constitutional authority found in Article XXIX. The commission therefore filed suit and achieved vindication in the case Ethics Commission v. Cullison et al. (1993). Ruling that the legislature's action unconstitutionally encroached on the Ethics Commission's powers, the Oklahoma Supreme Court confirmed that Article XXIX granted the commission the authority to develop and promulgate ethics rules for the state.
The Ethics Commission performs several functions beyond rule making. It serves as an official repository for disclosure reports from campaigns for elective office and makes these reports publicly available, it receives annual statements of the financial interests of public officials, and it registers lobbyists and receives reports on what they give to public officials. It also holds hearings on proposed modifications of ethics rules and collects fines from those who miss deadlines for filing campaign reports.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Donald J. Maletz and Jerry Herbel, "The Oklahoma Ethics Commission, 1997-1998," in The Almanac of Oklahoma Politics 2000, ed. Gary W. Copeland, Ronald K. Gaddie, and Craig A. Williams (Stillwater, Okla.: OPSA Press, 1999). Donald J. Maletz and Jerry Herbel, "Beyond Idealism: Democracy and Ethics Reform," The American Review of Public Administration, 30 March 2000.
Donald J. Maletz
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