Oklahoma County Commissioner Kevin Calvey’s side job as a registered lobbyist for an anti-abortion organization has raised the eyebrows of his former legislative colleagues.
Calvey visited the Capitol today wearing two hats: A supporter of the annual Rose Day anti-abortion advocacy event and an elected participant in County Government Day.
“I’m here today for Oklahomans for Life,” Calvey said while walking to the Capitol Wednesday morning from a parking lot. “And I’ll probably put in a good word for county roads and some criminal justice reform stuff we have an interest in at the county.”
Moments later, Calvey slightly changed his tune.
“I’m just here as a citizen, I guess. I’m not effectively doing any lobbying today. I’ve been going to this (event) every year,” said Calvey, who termed out of the House of Representatives last year.
Later Wednesday, he clarified that he was also visiting with lawmakers as part of County Government Day, which is hosted by the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma and the County Officers and Deputies Association.
“Both,” he said outside the House lounge when asked whether he was advocating for pro-life or county government issues.
GOP, Dem legislators see ‘ethical dilemmas’
However Calvey views his Capitol visits — he spoke to various lawmakers in the building Tuesday as well — there appears to be no prohibition against a county commissioner lobbying the executive and legislative branches of state government.
“We don’t have jurisdiction over the conduct of county officers. We do for county campaigns and financial disclosure statements, but that’s the extent,” said Oklahoma Ethics Commission executive director Ashley Kemp. “We do have a prohibition that prevents state officers and employees from being registered lobbyists. But we don’t have the jurisdiction to put in place a rule prohibiting any conduct by a county officer.”
After receiving clarification from Kemp, that’s something Rep. Jason Dunnington (D-OKC) believes should change.
“If this isn’t illegal now, then I’m going to engage the Ethics Commission and others to ensure that it is illegal in the future,” Dunnington said. “It may not be illegal, but it doesn’t pass the public sniff test, for sure.”
Calvey believes it does for “anybody who looks at it objectively.”
“I’m still fully able to discharge my duties,” he said. “This is distinct. It doesn’t interfere with what I do as a county commissioner, and it is something that I have a life-long calling to be participating in.”
But Calvey’s argument may not ring true with members of both parties.
“It’s totally fucked up,” said one GOP lawmaker on the condition of anonymity. “It’s the fox and the hen house. You’ve got an elected official who is also a registered lobbyist. It doesn’t get any worse than that.”
“For me, the problem is a philosophical problem,” Walke said. “I think that anyone who is paid through taxpayer dollars — as a county commissioner is — ought not to be a lobbyist for any other organization because they are there to represent the citizens full-time. That isn’t a part-time job.”
Osburn expressed surprise at the situation.
“I obviously did not know he was out here with Oklahomans for Life for Rose Day. I thought he was out here as a county commissioner on County Government Day,” Osburn said. “I look forward to visiting with him about his relationship to both organizations.”
Walke was more blunt.
“He shouldn’t be splitting his time while on taxpayer dollars,” Walke said. “I mean, $105,000 (salary)? And he’s splitting his time between that and other lobbying activities? I’m sure when voters elected him they didn’t think he was going to be a lobbyist on the side.”
Rep. Josh West (R-Grove) said he presumed elected county officials would have already been prohibited from being registered lobbyists for private entities.
“I think it’s got the potential to create some ethical dilemmas,” West said.
Calvey: ‘My duty as an elected official comes first’
Calvey said he does not have to be in his county office for a certain amount of time each week, and he said he does not have to take time off to lobby for Oklahomans for Life.
He emphasized that he will always prioritize his county commissioner duties whenever schedules conflict with an Oklahomans for Life event, as they did Wednesday.
“My duty as an elected official comes first. County commissioners have held other jobs while in office. There are county commissioners who have practiced law while in office,” Calvey said. “I work far more than 40 hours a week on my County Commission job.”
Calvey’s work ethic can be seen on his Facebook page where videos show him outside with first responders and road crews during early morning and evening hours. Saturday morning, he made headlines with a surprise visit to the troubled Oklahoma County Jail to do a “head count.”
“Obviously we have a big problem with our county jail, and I’m spending an overwhelming majority of my time trying to learn about that and trying to make that system better to where it is both more humane for the people who are in there and more cost-effective for the taxpayers in avoiding lawsuits and operating things most efficiently,” Calvey said Wednesday.
Dunnington said Calvey’s situation frustrated him greatly.
“I think it’s ironic that someone who spent their career as a House member disparaging government and the role of government went on to get another government job and on that government dime is up here lobbying issues that are not under the purview of his elected position,” Dunnington said.
Calvey called the situation a First Amendment issue and said those likely to criticize him have the right to do so. He also recalled his days in the Oklahoma Legislature.
“I have many times had elected officials come and advocate to me on an issue that wasn’t related to their elected office over the years,” Calvey said. “Many, many times. So no, I don’t think there’s anything unusual in that. It’s not uncommon, it’s not unusual and it didn’t conflict or detract from those elected officials’ duties and this doesn’t either.”
Kemp said the Oklahoma Ethics Commission would need additional funding if it were to be tasked with regulating the ethical doings of county officials.
“The reason we have in place the (lobbying) prohibition for state officers and employees is to ensure and restrict and minimize the opportunities for conflict between public duties and private economic interests,” Kemp said.