About 20 years ago President Bill Clinton floated his smoke screen defense for his lousy behavior by telling us, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” About a month ago President Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani announced, “The truth isn’t the truth.”
This brings us to Duncan Republican State Senator Paul Scott, who now wants us to believe a State Constitution prohibition on legislators doing business with state government doesn’t really mean what it says. Sen. Scott, following the playbook of GOP corporate socialists, seems to have found a way to turn public money into private profit. Scott’s Sooner Mobile X-ray, Inc., has been awarded a contract by the Oklahoma Department of Veteran Affairs to handle x-rays at the department’s seven care centers.
The Oklahoman’s Ben Felder reported Aug. 26 that, despite plain wording in the State Constitution that forbids such practices, Scott’s company was awarded the contract to outsource x-rays previously handled on-site. The pertinent part of the Constitution, according to Felder, is Article Five, Section 23. After forbidding certain governmental appointments by sitting legislators, the law of our grand land continues, “nor shall any member during the term for which he shall have been elected, or within two years thereafter, be interested directly or indirectly, in any contract with the State…”
In addition to this prohibition on “any contract with the State,” the following Section 24 proclaims, “A member of the Legislature, who has a personal or private interest in any measure or bill, proposed or pending before the Legislature, shall disclose the fact to the House of which he is a member, and shall not vote thereon.”
Scott told the paper that this situation is a matter of “optics” and that his attorney “was in contact with ODVA about the potential conflict of interest from the beginning.”
“However,” Felder writes, “email obtained by The Oklahoman show that officials with ODVA attempted to address the potential conflict of interest after the contract was awarded.” The ODVA solution, Felder reported, was to ask for “an amendment to be added to the contract that only federal funds be used to pay Sooner Mobile X-Ray, Inc. By doing so, ODVA argued that Scott was in compliance because a 2005 attorney general’s opinion said lawmakers are only restricted from receiving state money not federal money.”
It should be pointed out that Scott sits on the Senate Appropriation Subcommittee of Health, ”which oversees budget bills” from ODVA. That might inspire agency officials to search for a loophole.
Words, words and more words make lawyers rich as they parse them to suit their clients. How applicable that AG ruling is to Scott’s case has yet to be decided. Regardless of the funding source, once federal money arrives at ODVA, it becomes the state’s money however it is pigeon-holed; no other entity can distribute it – the prohibition against “any contract with the State” seems pretty clear.
Ashley Kemp, director of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission – which the GOP-controlled Lege is trying to de-fund out of existence – told The Oklahoman that the situation is a constitutional issue that should be handled by district attorneys or the attorney general. Not sure how much oversight we can expect from a Republican attorney general. Maybe a law and order DA will investigate.
We need to know, as well, how active Scott was in voting on measures which included ODVA matters – per the prohibition in Section 24. An Ethics Commission proposal last year to strengthen conflict of interest rules in just these cases was rejected by legislators, Kemp added.
Democratic Rep. Brian Renegar sees a more sinister game afoot. According to Felder, Renegar introduced a bill “that would have specifically banned lawmakers from entering into a contract with (ODVA). “Renegar said he suspected the ODVA was attempting to privatize its centers and he worried lawmakers that voted to support the effort might be ‘rewarded’ with a business contract or job that benefitted from the privatization.”
Looks like Rep. Renegar has a touch of the prophet in him.
Democratic Fourth District Representative candidate Mary Brannon shares Renegar’s suspicions. As part of her stump speech, she explains that when Republicans control the purse strings, they slash agency budgets to the point of making functional efficiency impossible. Then, citing the ineffectiveness of the agencies they have just gutted, they shift governmental services to the private sector where cronies reap the profits at the public’s expense. Such tactics, Brannon says, are currently targeting the Veterans Administration.
“The spirit of the law,” Renegar told The Oklahoman “is to stop this type of situation from occurring.”
Scott told The Oklahoman, “I am a member of my church. Believe me, I want everything to be above board.” Maybe his church is one that sees plain English prohibitions and concocts fancy, symbolic interpretations. I mean, prosperity gospelteers have turned greed into a virtue.
This is something Sen. Scott shouldn’t be on board with in the first place. The timeline discrepancy doesn’t help appearances. Except for a few “floaters,” my own “optics” are pretty good. This is not a pretty picture.
(Gary Edmondson is Stephens County Democratic Party Chair.)