(Editor’s note: This story was authored by Paul Monies of Oklahoma Watch and appears here in accordance with the non-profit journalism organization’s republishing terms.)
As a convicted felon on a suspended sentence, former state Rep. Gus Blackwell can’t vote — but he can still lobby his former colleagues in the Legislature.
Blackwell, who left office in 2014 and became a registered lobbyist, was convicted in 2017 of “double-dipping” on his per diem and travel claims when he was a legislator. He remained a lobbyist and still can be seen in the Capitol corridors pressing the interests of his client.
It’s a different story for former state Sen. Kyle Loveless. He pleaded guilty last year to felonies related to misspending campaign donations and agreed never to become a paid lobbyist or political consultant or hold any local, state or federal government job.
The cases of Blackwell and Loveless evoke questions that have come up in recent years about who can be barred from becoming a registered lobbyist in Oklahoma and whether elected officials should be banned from accepting jobs as lobbyists shortly after leaving office.
An Ethics Commission rule requiring a two-year “cooling-off” period before certain officials could become lobbyists was rejected by the Legislature this year, with some lawmakers saying it was unjust to deny people the freedom to seek private employment.
The issue becomes trickier when it involves someone convicted of a felony, but in some ways it’s similar to any person applying for employment. There are no restrictions in law on who can be a lobbyist, and they don’t have to be certified or have a college degree, although many of them do. They only have to register with the state and abide by disclosure requirements and limits on gift buying for public officials.
State leaders have begun moving away from stigmatizing state job applicants who have criminal records. In 2016, Gov. Mary Fallin signed an executive order requiring state agencies to eliminate questions about felony convictions from job applications.
In the meantime, Blackwell and Loveless, both Republicans, must take different paths.
Nothing in state law or ethics rules prohibits lawmakers convicted of felonies from lobbying their former colleagues, but their ability to do so depends largely on prosecutors’ demands.
Blackwell, who left office in 2014 after spending a dozen years representing much of northwest Oklahoma and the Panhandle, turned around and became a registered lobbyist, working for one client to track legislation and advance their business interests during the 2015 session. He added two more clients for the 2016 and 2017 sessions.
Blackwell was charged in May 2016 with 44 counts of perjury, embezzlement and making false statements. Prosecutors said he “double-dipped” on travel reimbursements from both the state and his campaign fundraising committees. Blackwell pleaded guilty to a single felony charge of perjury in January 2017, receiving a five-year suspended sentence and agreeing to pay $10,000 in restitution.
Loveless, who represented south Oklahoma City, pleaded guilty in August 2017 to three charges of embezzlement, perjury and falsifying campaign reports for using campaign funds for personal expenses. His punishment included suspended sentences of three years for embezzlement, three years for perjury and two years falsifying campaign reports, to be served concurrently.
Loveless was prohibited from using his connections and skills as an elected official and former congressional staffer to make a living. He also agreed to pay more than $162,000 in restitution and fines, including $40,000 to the Oklahoma Election Board for a special election in November to fill his Senate seat.
Meanwhile, Blackwell, a Republican from Laverne, continued to lobby for the three clients for the 2017 legislative session and had one client this year, the Oklahoma Child Care Association, according to Oklahoma Ethics Commission filings.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, whose office prosecuted both Blackwell and Loveless, could not be reached for comment on why Blackwell was allowed to keep lobbying while Loveless was prohibited from doing so. Loveless declined to comment.
Ashley Kemp, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said the agency has no control over how criminal cases are prosecuted. The commission still has a pending civil complaint in Oklahoma County district court against Blackwell seeking fines and restitution. That case had been stayed until the criminal case was finalized, which she said included some post-plea issues.
Kemp said the commission and Legislature share responsibility on ethics laws, with the state constitution granting the commission the power to enact civil laws and giving the Legislature authority over criminal laws regarding political candidates and campaigns. For example, the Legislature has passed a “three-strikes” law making certain activities by lobbyists misdemeanors. A lobbyist who has three of those misdemeanors can be prohibited from lobbying for five years.
One of Blackwell’s former lobbying clients, Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, terminated its relationship with him after he pleaded guilty. But the association’s current executive director, Jackie Switzer, said it had no problems with Blackwell’s job performance and lobbying activities for the two years when he was its lobbyist and executive director.
“Gus is a very good guy, and this was a witch hunt against him,” Switzer said of the charges against Blackwell. “I think you see the final resolution with a single felony probably shows this was a lot of hoopla for the news. We requested he step down because we have a law- enforcement focus.”
For two years, Blackwell also represented Panhandle Citizens for Truth in Gaming, a group opposed to the expansion of tribal gaming in the Panhandle.
Blackwell referred questions to his attorney, Stephen Jones, who did not respond to a request for comment.
Blackwell is among a handful of former lawmakers who were term-limited or left early to become lobbyists. The Ethics Commission earlier this year finalized a rule to enforce the two-year cooling-off period for lawmakers and top, nonelected agency executive officers, but the Legislature struck it down earlier this month in the last days of the regular session.
In rejecting the “cooling-off” rules, lawmakers questioned whether the Ethics Commission could “regulate the conduct of private citizens and business entities.”
“Once someone leaves an elected position or leaves public employment, they become a private citizen,” Rep. John Paul Jordan, R-Yukon, said during the House debate. “The Ethics Commission does not have the ability or should not have the ability to regulate the employment of a private citizen. That is not in the state constitution. That is going outside their realm of authority.”
The Ethics Commission said two-thirds of states have lawmaker cooling-off periods, which range from six months to two years. About half of the states extend those cooling-off periods to nonelected officers or employees.
“Elected officers may be looking past current service to post-government service, while at the same time private employers are aware of who will be termed out of service and looking for new opportunities,” Kemp said in a statement. “There is nothing wrong about looking for post-government service, but it does mean additional safeguards are necessary, such as a cooling-off period, to minimize the risk to the state of Oklahoma.”