(Update: The Oklahoma Ethics Commission met Thursday, Nov. 2, and reviewed applicants for the executive director position during a roughly 90-minute executive session. The commission received 14 applicants, 11 of whom are attorneys. All are from the state of Oklahoma. After the executive session, commissioners voted to interview six applicants during their next regularly scheduled meeting, Nov. 17. A motion to interview another candidate, applicant No. 3, failed on a 2-3 vote. The following article remains in its original form.)
Under the watchful eye of a deputy general counsel from the state Attorney General’s Office, the Oklahoma Ethics Commission met Friday and approved qualifications for a new executive director and specified where the job opening would be posted, discussions that apparently took place three months ago in a private executive session that was closed to the public.
The Ethics Commission had been scheduled to get an update on the applicants during a meeting last month, but Attorney General Gentner Drummond learned from one its commissioners, former state Sen. Eddie Fields (R-Wynona), that the commission had inappropriate discussions during its July 21 meeting about job qualifications and the search process for a new executive director. Drummond had a letter hand-delivered and emailed to outgoing executive director Ashley Kemp on Sept. 21 advising her to cancel that day’s scheduled meeting “due to clear violations of the Open Meeting Act.”
“It is clear to me that this process has been irreparably flawed and must be started anew,” Drummond wrote. “You owe it to commissioners to navigate them throughout the process legally, and you owe it to the state of Oklahoma to get this process right and completed transparently.”
Drummond wrote that he was informed “that robust discussion on topics not appropriate for executive session took place behind closed doors instead of in an open meeting Commissioners should have approved requiring candidates for the position of executive director be a licensed attorney in the state of Oklahoma in a public, record(ed) vote at the very least.”
Drummond said while commissioners held a recorded vote to accept Kemp’s resignation, they took no action concerning the job posting or setting qualifications. Commissioners also failed to vote to establish a search committee and set its operating parameters in an open meeting.
“It appears that decisions concerning the search committee’s composition and directive were made behind closed doors instead of during an open meeting where the public would benefit from the discussion and understanding of the decision-making process,” he wrote.
Drummond wrote that simply referencing a search committee “upon returning to open session is wholly inadequate.”
“These apparent actions represent serious violations of both the letter and spirit of Oklahoma’s Open Meeting Act, the purpose of which is ‘to encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry’s understanding of governmental processes and governmental problems,'” Drummond wrote.
Kemp, who announced her resignation in a letter July 14 to commissioners, scrapped the September meeting “out of an abundance of caution.”
“I believe a personal phone call would have assuaged your concerns without affecting the progress of the commission,” Kemp wrote in a Sept. 21 letter back to Drummond. “I also understand your concern to ensure compliance with the Open Meeting Act and that you did what you believed was necessary in the moment.”
Kemp wrote Drummond that she had secured an attorney from his office to advise the commission on the search for an executive director and discussed the search process after the July meeting. However, she said the attorney from his office did not respond when she reached out before the Sept. 21 meeting.
Items raised by Drummond were listed on the agenda for Friday’s meeting, which lasted about four hours. Drummond also dispatched Thomas Schneider, a deputy general counsel with his office. Kemp told commissioners that Schneider would be assisting in the search process for an executive director. During Friday’s meeting, Schneider occasionally advised commissioners whether their conversation was going off topic from the items listed on the agenda.
‘We can’t go back and change what happened’
Ultimately, commissioners voted Friday to start the search process over, with applications being accepted through Oct. 31. They also voted to accept the applications from 10 people who had applied for the post on the Ethics Commission’s website. Seven other people applied through the job posting listed on the website of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, but not all of their applications were complete. Commissioners directed Kemp to contact those applicants and tell them the search process has been reopened and that they could learn how to reapply on the Ethics Commission’s website.
“We can’t go back and change what happened,” Commissioner Gregg Engle said.
Commissioners discussed whether a law degree should be required for candidates, although acknowledging it would be excluding people with administrative experience who might be good at heading up a state agency.
All three executive directors of the Ethics Commission have had law degrees since the agency was created by voters in 1990.
Fields said there is no policy or state law that requires the executive director to posses a law degree.
“We box ourselves into a narrow field of applicants,” he said.
Hiring an executive director without a law degree would be “taking a huge step backward,” Engle said.
“I don’t think we can have too much law experience,” he said.
Kemp said that, including her, two of the Ethics Commission’s six staff members have a law degree. The other person with a juris doctorate is the agency’s general counsel, who has to defend decisions made by staff and commissioners. Kemp said she uses her legal training daily while answering questions from the public or candidates, writing rules, researching state and federal laws or helping with investigations of violations of ethics rules or campaign finance laws.
“Without having a law degree, you’re in a difficult position,” she said.
Having a lawyer as executive director also saves the agency money it might otherwise spend to contract with an outside firm to deal with or answer legal issues, she said.
Commissioners decided not to form a search committee, instead determining that all five of them would review and screen applicants and schedule interviews with finalists. They plan to meet again at least once in November before their next scheduled meeting of Nov. 17.
Kemp, who has served as executive director for the past 10 years, said she had hoped her successor could be named before Dec. 31, but she said she is flexible and open to staying longer if needed.
Ethics Commission seeks funding restoration to FY 2016 level
Commissioners also approved a budget request for the 2025 fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2024. The large ask — more than three times the amount the agency received this year — will be presented to the Oklahoma Legislature for consideration during the 2024 regular session, which starts Feb. 5.
Lawmakers are being asked to restore the Ethics Commission’s funding to the amount it received in the 2016 fiscal year. Cuts to the budget — and, subsequently, staff — were not restored after various shortfalls that occurred during that time, Kemp said.
For FY 2016, the commission received $837,000 from the Legislature. Its appropriation for the current fiscal year is $687,900. In recent years, the commission’s dynamic with both legislative chambers has been strained owing to significant investigations and settlements involving influential legislators in both the Senate and the House.
Eight years ago, the initial shortfall left the deputy director position vacant, and subsequent legislative changes affecting the commission’s fee revenue left if without funds to support candidate and committee education programs, she said.
Restoring funding to the 2016 fiscal year levels would allow the commission at least to fill the deputy director position, Kemp said.
The commission’s total request for state funding next year is about $2.4 million. The commission is seeking $1.2 million in operational funds — with $837,000 of that representing 2016 fiscal year level of funding. The commission is also requesting several other items, including funding for a department on political subdivisions as required by SB 1745, which passed in 2014.
The commission is also requesting $150,000 for a director of compliance, which would provide education programs and serve as another attorney assisting the general counsel and executive director. The position at one time was paid partly through state appropriations and partly through fee revenue. Budget shortfalls over the years and a cap on the agency’s revolving fund left the commission with insufficient funding to fill the position after the director of compliance was promoted to general counsel in 2019. The position has been vacant since then.
Commissioners also voted to request $1.2 million in special project funds for a new system to track campaign activity and lobbyist spending in Oklahoma. The Guardian System, which was set up in 2014, is a state-of-the-art online reporting and disclosure system that provides transparency into campaign finances and lobbyist spending. Kemp said all data entered into The Guardian System is available to perform customized searches. It also permits data to be downloaded by individuals, the media, research groups and others.
Kemp said that while the state of Oklahoma owns The Guardian System, the company that operates it notified the Ethics Commission in June that changes to its own technology means it will no longer be able to support The Guardian System after July 1, 2024.
The Ethics Commission is trying to get the company to allow The Guardian System to remain online through February 2025, she said, but either way a new system will be necessary sooner than later.
“[Keeping it online through February 2025] would allow all of the 2024 election cycle reports to be done in that system,” Kemp said.