Throwing a Felony Count into Ethics of Campaign Funding

Article excerpt

It can be risky business under Oklahoma law if you want to buy an election with someone else's money or borrowing power.

State candidates can be subject to fines under the jurisdiction of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission if they exceed the $5,000 contribution limit, whether it's a loan or an outright donation.

That's the same form of penalty meted out by the Federal Election Commission for candidates for Congress who violate federal rules. But in Oklahoma, under a law authored by House Speaker-designate Loyd Benson, D-Frederick, a state candidate can face a felony charge if a campaign infraction involves an amount more than double the $5,000 threshold. Again, the law applies to both donations and loans. Campaign loans have long been a hot-button topic in Oklahoma. Current state laws and ethics rules governing loans and contributions are partly the legacy of the two gubernatorial campaigns of former Gov. David Walters. In 1986, Walters was named in an ethics complaint questioning $162,500 in loans from individuals, including $125,000 from an Oklahoma City contractor. Walters used the money for television advertising that helped him get into a Democratic runoff in the governor's race with then-Attorney General Mike Turpen. Walters argued there was nothing wrong with his campaign loans since he used his home as collateral, with friends and associates obtaining second mortgages. But the legal fight that ensued tied up the Walters' campaign for part of the general election race and is often cited as a reason he lost to Republican Henry Bellmon. Bellmon appointed a special prosecutor to review the case. The prosecutor eventually found that the state campaign law was violated, but was unconstitutional and could not be prosecuted. Walters came back in 1990 to win election as the state's chief executive. But his term was marred by a controversy over campaign law excesses, leading to his indictment on felony accusations. In his last year, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation in district court as part of a plea agreement. He was given a deferred sentence and the violation has since been wiped off the record. Ethics rules adopted in 1994 avoid the constitutional pitfalls cited in 1986, says Marilyn Hughes, executive director of the Ethics Commission. "It's a fix," she said, adding that the state ethics rules governing loans are enforceable "as far as the case law I'm aware of." She said the old campaign laws were too broad, defining all loans as contributions. …