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Ethics proposal would mandate disclosure of ‘indirect’ lobbying donors

 The Journal Record | January 11, 2019

OKLAHOMA CITY – A state ethics rule proposal has created a debate over where transparency issues end and privacy issues begin.

The Oklahoma Ethics Commission proposed an amendment in its regulations Friday that would allow the agency to begin controlling so-called indirect lobbying and require the disclosure of those who donate money to those efforts.

Supporters of the change said the rule ends an arbitrary distinction.

Under current law, ethics officials are allowed to monitor spending on candidate campaigns, but they’re not allowed to monitor spending on legislative issue campaigns. For example, organizers who place ads on television that urge residents to oppose a piece of legislation are not subject to financial disclosures.

Indirect lobbying has an extensive definition within the proposed rule change, but all of it pertains to activism regarding specific pieces of legislation. It includes paid advertisements in all media, hiring professional lobbyists or collecting more than $500 in funds to advocate for or against legislation.

Under the rule change, if organizations collect money from individual donors for indirect lobbying, the donors’ names, addresses, occupations and employers are required to be disclosed. Critics said that could have a chilling effect, especially for residents siding with the minority on an issue.

State Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, has been working with the commission to implement the rule. She said she’s been seeing several advertisements urging residents to oppose legislation. At the end of those ads, the narrator says the ad was paid for by a vaguely named dark-money group.

“You can’t find out whose voice you’re hearing,” she said during the amendment’s hearing. “When you know whose voice it is, then you understand better the objective.”

She said the disclosure is important to protect general voters – people who don’t spend all day following politics – from having their opinions affected by anonymous groups whose motives are hidden.

Many of the speakers at the hearing opposed the measure, raising concern that it’s inappropriately regulated private political participation.

Trent England is the executive vice president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative organization in Oklahoma City. He said more than 2,000 people had signed the group’s petition against the rule change. He said the measure was inappropriate because the Ethics Commission is designed to regulate public officials, not private voters.

Jonathan Small, president of the same organization, voiced a similar concern but in a broader context.

“Transparency is for government, privacy is for people,” he said.

The rule proposal has already undergone significant changes since it was introduced in December. The commission had a public meeting with a comment period on it then. During Friday’s meeting, the commission decided to continue the hearing process on the rule before taking a vote. Members will meet for more public comment on Jan. 25.

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