The Oklahoman (Sunday)
Schools chief avoids ethics lawsuit
The state’s watchdog agency did not file an ethics lawsuit against state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister because of the expense, The Oklahoman has learned.
The Ethics Commission revealed the reason in its complaint to the Oklahoma Supreme Court about its overall budget.
“The Commission will not pursue a serious and complex litigation case for which the statute of limitation just expired due to lack of in-house personnel to timely investigate and prosecute the matter,” it told justices.
“The cost of outside counsel to litigate would have been at least $350,000.”
The Ethics Commission also revealed it has been unable to investigate “several” candidates and political action committees “due to lack of personnel.” The agency has only seven employees.
The Ethics Commission began investigating Hofmeister in 2014 because of accusations of wrongdoing in her first campaign.
Under their rules, commissioners had four years from the alleged ethics violations to take Hofmeister to court and seek civil penalties. The deadline passed June 16.
The Ethics Commission planned to pay outside attorneys out of a revolving fund to pursue the lawsuit against Hofmeister.
Executive Director Ashley Kemp told justices that became “impossible” when the Legislature took $710,351 from the revolving fund.
“The conduct involved likely impacted election results,” Kemp wrote in an affidavit. “It was estimated that litigation using outside counsel would cost between $350,000 and $500,000.”
She also wrote, “It is likely similar investigations will be necessary for 2018 elections. The Commission has insufficient resources in FY 19 to investigate and enforce those types of Rule violations.”
The 2019 fiscal year began Sunday.
Hofmeister, a Tulsa Republican, is seeking re-election.
She already has faced a criminal charge because of the accusations surrounding her 2014 election. The felony case against her and four other defendants was dropped last year “pending further investigation.”
Hofmeister was the top vote-getter in Tuesday’s GOP primary election for the office. She will be on the ballot again Aug. 28 in a runoff election.
“I have had no contact from the Ethics Commission since a politically motivated complaint was lodged against me four years ago,” Hofmeister said last week.
Her runoff opponent, Linda Murphy of Edmond, called the inaction by the Ethics Commission “pretty disturbing.”
“They should be getting the money somehow,” Murphy said.
Attorney General Mike Hunter offered in May to have one of his top assistants, Tom Gruber, file the case for free. Gruber is a former chairman of the Ethics Commission.
However, the Ethics Commission had already hired an outside attorney, Andy Lester, to evaluate the evidence and make a recommendation.
Lester and another attorney, George Freedman, drafted a lawsuit, made 12 copies and met with commissioners in an executive session June 8, invoices show. The lawsuit was never filed.
The Ethics Commission was billed $23,919 for the legal work done by Lester, Freedman and a third attorney at their law firm.
Asked why the AG’s offer was not accepted, Kemp said “realistically the potential for conflicts of interest ... is very high.”
“Oklahomans gave the Commission the authority to hire its own attorneys to ensure it had the independence necessary to fulfill its mission,” she said.
The Ethics Commission did not name Hofmeister in its complaint to the Supreme Court. It was apparent it was referring to her case from a variety of records and other means.
In the complaint, the Ethics Commission accused legislators of trying to starve it and render it ineffective.
It complained it has been underfunded for years but that legislators have gone too far this time. “The Commission is unable to simply sit back and accept the appropriation this year,” it said.
The watchdog agency is asking the Supreme Court to find legislators violated a constitutional requirement to fund its duties sufficiently.
It is asking justices to take steps to correct the violation, possibly by directing the governor “to timely convene a special session.”
The Ethics Commission acted after legislators gave it nothing from the state’s general revenue fund to cover salaries and other operational expenses.
The Ethics Commission complained it is being required instead to fund operations from $710,351 legislators “raided” from its revolving fund.
The revolving fund is a collection of registration fees paid by candidates, political parties, PACs and lobbyists and their clients.
“In order to perform its basic constitutional duties, the Commission needs, at a minimum, an additional 17 employees and a total budget for FY 2019 of $2,467,097,” the Ethics Commission told the Supreme Court.
The accusations against Hofmeister are that she illegally colluded with a group calling itself Oklahomans for Public School Excellence to win the election.
The group raised $300,000 for an ad critical of Janet Barresi, the incumbent superintendent. That ad had a disclaimer that it was not authorized by any candidate or candidate committee.
The money for the ad came from the Oklahoma Education Association and the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration.