(Editor’s note: This story about an Ethics Commission rule change was authored by Trevor Brown of Oklahoma Watch and appears here in accordance with the non-profit journalism organization’s republishing terms.)
When Oklahomans return to the polls to select the state’s next governor and a host of statewide and legislative officers, they will be making their choices without potentially decisive information.
That includes how much candidates earn in their private-sector careers and what their sources of income and investments are. If they have any financial dealings that could pose conflicts of interest in office, the facts won’t likely be made public. Voters will only know what candidates choose to divulge.
Unlike the federal government and nearly three dozen states, Oklahoma does not require candidates to reveal even the most basic details of their finances before Election Day.
The Oklahoma Ethics Commission, citing privacy concerns and the burden of added paperwork, stopped requiring candidates to file a financial disclosure statement before the 2016 elections.
State ethics rules now require only elected officials to file those statements months after taking office and then annually. The form contains less information than what is required for disclosure by the federal government and many other states.
This is the first statewide election since the rule change, meaning voters will choose the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and other statewide officeholders with little or no information about their personal finances.
Three of the five remaining gubernatorial candidates and many contenders for statewide positions haven’t ever held state or local elected office, so they haven’t had to fill out financial disclosure statements. Even those who have held public office haven’t had required to reveal much on their financial statements since 2016. The Ethics Commission revised the forms starting in 2017 so officeholders don’t have to disclose as many potential sources of income outside of their state jobs.
Noel Isama, a policy analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group promoting transparency in government, said voters shouldn’t have to wait until a candidate takes office before they get details about their personal finances. He said the delay could allow candidates to conceal financial information about themselves or family members that would later create conflicts of interest.
“The big reason you want to know about a candidate’s finances is because you want to know what motivates them and what drives them,” he said. “It’s not bad to be successful or have financial interests, but if you are trying to hide that information, maybe you shouldn’t be running for public office.”
A state-by-state examination by Oklahoma Watch found that Oklahoma is one of only 18 states that don’t require candidates for statewide office or legislative seats to disclose at least some financial information.
Most of the other 32 states require that the paperwork be submitted within weeks of filing for office. Refusing to do so can be grounds for fines, a public listing or even being struck from the ballot.
But the amount of information required to be disclosed varies widely.
Some states, such as Vermont, don’t ask for detailed financial information from candidates; instead they require the names of employers, business holdings or investments that pay or are worth $5,000 or more.
Other states want a lot more. Hawaii, for example, asks about candidates’ creditors, involvement in foundations, trusts, nonprofits and other organizations, and real estate holdings, including the cost of the property and the seller. Like many other states, Hawaii also requires candidates to report their incomes and other financial holdings or liabilities within ranges of values. Some states require specific income figures.
The federal government mandates that Cabinet-level and other senior appointees, elected officials and congressional candidates list their current and prior years’ income amounts and sources and provide other information.
The reports go well beyond what Oklahoma requires even from those who assume office.
The state’s financial disclosure forms ask officeholders to list their stakes and spouses’ stakes in private businesses, investments worth more than $20,000, ownership of more than 5 percent or $50,000 in a publicly traded company, and income of more than $20,000 outside of officeholder pay. Like Vermont, the state doesn’t require filers to give earnings from companies they own or work for.
Before 2016, candidates also were asked to list these details. But that changed when the Ethics Commission approved a new rule that exempts candidates and thousands of non-elected state employees from filing the forms.
Ethics Commission Executive Director Ashley Kemp said maintaining and processing the reports took an excessive amount of staff members’ time. She said this prevented them from reviewing the reports for potential enforcement issues and performing other duties.
No Oklahoma precedent
State laws aren’t the only thing preventing the public from learning how much candidates earn and their sources of income and investments. A simple lack of tradition also is a factor.
Elsewhere, it is customary for people aspiring to top leadership jobs to voluntarily disclose tax returns and other financial details. Tax returns can provide a more comprehensive rundown of candidates’ finances than what finance disclosure reports offer.
Voluntary disclosure is common on the national stage, such as when presidential candidates release federal or state tax returns at some point during their campaigns. (President Donald Trump is one of the few exceptions; he famously has refused to release his tax returns.)
Gubernatorial candidates often release tax returns on their own or in response to public pressure. Candidates for the top office in Ohio, New York and Maryland are among those who have released their returns this year.
In other states, including Oklahoma, candidates have either rejected calls to release their returns or were never asked because the issue never comes up – voters have no expectation or tradition of financial transparency.
Joey Senat, an associate professor of journalism at Oklahoma State University, said he’s not aware of an Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate in recent memory who has released their tax returns.
Senat, who specializes in government transparency issues, said the media should play a role in revealing this information, but he noted that voters likely haven’t pressed for disclosure because they’re content with the status quo.
“Sometime voters can be too trusting, and sometimes that can come back to bite them,” Senat said.