Legislative leaders defend secrecy at Capitol

Oklahoma's legislators must be exempt from the state's open government laws in order to avoid releasing personal or confidential information revealed in constituent e-mails or letters, the author of the state Open Records Act told KWTV.

"If you don't allow citizens the right to communicate on sensitive matters such as family members having AIDS, possibilities of child abuse or other things (then) it would be a mistake," said Stratton Taylor, who served as Senate president pro tempore from 1995 to 2003.

However, legislators could abide by the Open Records Act while exempting such confidential information from disclosure. In fact, medical records and many others are already exempted from the otherwise public documents of state and local agencies. (See, e.g., OKLA. STAT. tit. 36 O.S. § 6927; 43A O.S. § 2-224; 63 O.S. §, 1-729; 63 O.S. § 1-738c; 63 O.S. § 5051.5; 10 O.S. §. 620.1)

Even so, the same load of horse excrement was shoveled by the current Senate president pro tem.

"The staff and members of the Oklahoma legislature deal with numerous inquiries and communications from constituents, fellow members and others who have concerns about state government, and who would need their privacy protected for any number of legitimate reasons," said
Glen Coffee.

The Oklahoma City Republican cannot seek re-election this fall because of term limits. The same is true for House Speaker
Chris Benge, who also defended the need for secrecy at the state Capitol.

"The long-standing principle of legislative immunity is aimed at protecting a legislator's (and his or her agent while performing legislative functions) ability to deliberate and communicate in confidence to discharge his or her duty as a representative of the public," the Tulsa Republican told KWTV. "Such protection is essential to the functioning of the House."

Yes, unfortunately, secrecy seems to be at the core of how the House and Senate conduct the public's business. And that secrecy has bred incompetency and corruption at the state Capitol.

KWTV said its report was prompted by accusations of political corruption at the Capitol. Its reporters wanted to know who in the last days of the session had added to a bill some language creating a high-paying job at the state Medical Examiner's Office.

(Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater is investigating whether Rep. Randy Terrill conspired with Sen. Debbe Leftwich to give up her Oklahoma City seat so Rep. Mike Christian could run for it and Leftwich would get the job at the Medical Examiner's Office in exchange.)

KWTV's request for notes, e-mails and other information related to the legislation was denied by the bill's author -- none other than Glen Coffee.

At a press conference in June, Coffee denied knowing who had added the language but admitted to signing the conference committee report that included the new job in the bill.

KWTV also looked at how the conference committees -- particularly in the rushed finals days of a session -- create a situation fertile for abuse.

Despite the name "committee," the station reported, most don't actually meet to reconcile the differences between House and Senate versions of bills.

"No, it's a piece of paper that has signature lines on it," said Rep. Ryan Kiesel, D-Seminole.

KWTV noted that the author of a bill sent to a conference committee needs only to get signatures from a majority of the committee members to bring it back for a floor vote.

Kiesel said the system allows unscrupulous legislators to insert self-serving language and then use personal or political persuasion to get enough committee members to agree.

Any notion of real legislative transparency is "out the window," he told the station.

At the press conference, Coffee had dodged the question of whether the conference committee system should be fixed.

"I am a term-limited legislator, and the next Legislature will have the opportunity to address those sort of issues if they choose," he told reporters.

Coffee, Benge and Stratton seem to think the rest of us are stupid. We're expected to believe that legitimate needs for privacy and confidentiality preclude other records or meetings from being open to the public.

But not even other legislators like the smell of that fertilizer.

"The confidentiality issue is just a bad excuse for saying that this law shouldn't apply to the Legislature. That's easily accounted for by a clear set of laws (exemptions) that everyone would follow," Rep.
Jason Murphey told KWTV.

Since March when Benge refused media requests for video showing legislators switching portraits of Gov. Brad Henry and President Barack Obama, Murphey has said he will introduce a bill next session to remove the Legislature's self-imposed exemption from the Open Meeting and Open Records laws.

"I think we need to look at how other states do it and basically find some of the best practices and apply them here," the Guthrie Republican told KWTV.

All six announced gubernatorial candidates have said they also support removing the exemption.)

If Murphey follows through on his promise, we'll get to see which legislators truly believe in the Open Records Act's founding principle:
It is the public policy of the State of Oklahoma that the people are are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.2)

In the meantime, we -- the voters -- can provide Murphey with some support for next session.

Ask legislative candidates to sign FOI Oklahoma's Open Government Pledge just as Murphey and 11 other House members have done.

Then expect those who are elected to operate with the same public scrutiny required of our other state and local officials.

After all, it's our government. Not their private club.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media and Strategic Communication
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.