The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

March 4, 2012

Oklahoma citizen legislators face potential conflicts

OKLAHOMA CITY — Some Oklahoma lawmakers are farmers and ranchers who bring years of experience and knowledge about the agriculture industry to the Legislature.

Others are bankers and financial advisers whose work in the private sector help them navigate the complexities of balancing Oklahoma’s $6.6 billion budget.

Many are lawyers whose legal training and background make them ideally suited to drafting legislation that meets the needs and expectations of Oklahomans.

All are citizen legislators who serve in the Oklahoma Legislature four months a year only to return to their communities and resume their private lives and careers. They also face potential conflicts if they try to blend their occupations with their public service as lawmakers.

Some of the pitfalls facing citizen legislators have surfaced during testimony in the bribery and extortion trial of the state Senate’s former leader who is accused of illegally accepting money from three companies that sought his influence on pending legislation.

A federal jury deliberated Thursday afternoon and Friday in the case of former Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, who faces federal bribery and extortion charges. The panel is to resume their discussions Monday after failing to reach verdicts.

Morgan, 57, is charged with attorney N. Martin Stringer, 72, of Oklahoma City, and both men have pleaded not guilty. An Edmond lobbyist also was charged initially, but a federal judge dropped charges against him after prosecutors rested their case. Morgan and Stringer also face fewer counts than those initially lodged.

According to prosecutors, Morgan, a lawyer, improperly accepted more than $400,000 from the companies between 2005 and 2008, when he left office.

During jury selection, Morgan’s attorney, David Ogle, questioned prospective jurors at length about whether state lawmakers should be able to pursue their profession while serving in the Legislature. Ogle has said the payments to Morgan were for legal services, but federal prosecutors allege Morgan performed no legal work for the companies.

There are plenty of opportunities for citizen lawmakers to benefit from their work in the Legislature, whether it is some form of compensation or gifts like tickets to sporting events, said Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a retired educator with 32 years of experience.

“I think it’s a danger that’s always there,” Sears said. “One has to know when not to cross that line.”

Sears said he is guided by one question when he makes a public policy decision: “Is this good for Oklahoma?”

“You work for the people,” Sears said. He said his oath of office as a lawmaker keeps him focused on service to the state, not private gain.

“I do not take that lightly,” he said.

Citizen legislators have an advantage over members of full-time legislatures and Congress whose only job is public service, said Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove, an emergency room physician who has been practicing for 32 years.

There are 10 state legislatures that are considered full-time, including those in California, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania, whose members spend 80 percent of more of their time working as lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“Practicing medicine helps keep my sanity during (the legislative) session,” Cox said. “It also keeps me in touch with my constituents.”

Cox said he has treated patients at the State Capitol, from spectators who have passed out in the House gallery to Capitol visitors who sprain their ankles on stairways. Those services are provided for free.

“I don’t take money out there,” Cox said.

Many citizen lawmakers make personal as well as financial sacrifices when they leave their occupations to serve as lawmakers. Oklahoma lawmakers are paid $38,400 a year, more than the state’s 2010 per capita income of $35,396 but far less than the $95,290 that California lawmakers are paid.

“I’m not saying we’re underpaid,” said Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing, a veterinarian. “But this is not just a four-month-a year job, especially for rural legislators. You do sacrifice your other profession.”

The sacrifice is particularly harsh for those in the legal profession, whose knowledge of the law and the legislative process make their services more valuable than other professions.

“When I first came to the Legislature, I thought I was going to be working left and right,” said Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, who practices title and real property law. But Crain said his first two years in the Legislature were the worst of his professional career.

“I lost all my regular clients and I didn’t know how to start building new clients,” he said. He said his healthy six-figure salary plummeted to five figures.

“I can make more as a full-time attorney. It’s a choice I make by serving in the Legislature,” Crain said.

As an attorney, Crain said he has the right to make a living. But he said he does not solicit business at the Capitol although he accepts client referrals from other lawyers, a practice governed by the Oklahoma Bar Association guidelines.

“I never wanted to put myself in a situation where people question my motives,” Crain said. “Eventually, everything becomes public. I just want to make sure that my good name is above reproach.”

Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, manages oil and gas properties for a Tulsa energy company and frequently uses his knowledge of the industry to develop legislation.

“It’s nice to have a few of us on the business side,” said Bingman, who holds the same leadership position in the Senate as Morgan did when Morgan allegedly violated federal law.

“If you’re going to be compensated for something, you need to be performing your particular trade. You’ve got to perform work,” Bingman said.

While campaign contributions are prohibited during the legislative session, Bingman said any contributions he receives at other times should not influence his legislative activities.

“Money that’s donated to my campaign has nothing to do with my vote on legislation,” he said.

Despite the potential conflicts, citizen legislators who maintain their community roots are more sensitive and effective lawmakers, said Sen. Charlie Laster, D-Shawnee, a practicing attorney for 33 years.

“People of Oklahoma want to have citizen legislators. It has always been that way,” Laster said. “We are much more grounded. We are in touch with the people and the world. I think it’s just very good for the people. They feel much more connected.”

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