Individuals with ties to oil and gas, telecommunications and utilities are pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the election for a state commission that regulates these industries.


  Individuals with ties to oil and gas, telecommunications and utilities are pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the election for a state commission that regulates these industries.

Oklahoma is one of 13 states with publicly elected utility regulators, and there is at least an appearance of impropriety when people running for these positions take contributions from those associated with the very industries they regulate, said Lynn Howell, chairman of Common Cause, a nonpartisan citizens' watchdog group.

"We're not accusing anyone of corruption or being bribed, but we all know it's human nature to feel obligated to people who do you favors," Howell said. "It creates the appearance of a conflict of interest even if there is not one."

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission makes decisions on electric and natural gas utility rates and charges, regulates the oil and gas industry and oversees intrastate pipelines and trucking.

Howell said Common Cause has pushed for public funding of commission races and would also support appointments similar to the way appellate court judges are selected, where the governor picks a name from a list of three candidates submitted by a nominating commission.

But some political experts say it's not unusual that those with ties to regulated industries would be the ones seeking to influence the election.

"That's anywhere you look in politics," said Keith Gaddie, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. "It's absolutely par for the course, which is that regulated industries tend to direct money to politicians who write the laws that regulate them."

This year, there are races for two of the three seats on the Corporation Commission — incumbent Republican Jeff Cloud is being challenged by former state Rep. Charles Gray, a Democrat, for a full six-year term.

In the other race, Republican challengers Dana Murphy, a former administrative law judge, and state Rep. Rob Johnson will meet in a GOP primary on Tuesday. The winner will face Democrat Jim Roth, who was appointed by Gov. Brad Henry to fill a vacancy on the commission.

An analysis by The Associated Press of the money raised by those three candidates over the last quarter shows much of it comes from individuals with direct ties to the industries regulated by the commission.

Of individual contributions of $500 or more, Jim Roth received about $409,000 from April 1 to July 14, according to campaign reports filed with the state Ethics Commission. Of that total, $243,350, or about 60 percent, came from those tied to regulated industries, including $84,500 from individuals with Chesapeake Energy Corp., an Oklahoma City-based natural gas production company.

During the same time period, Johnson received $89,550 in individual contributions of $500 or more, with $63,550, about 70 percent, of that coming from individuals with regulated industry ties.

Murphy's individual contributions of $500 or more totaled $67,300 during the same period, with $54,500, about 80 percent, coming from individuals with ties to regulated industries.

As an incumbent, Roth was prohibited from accepting contributions from individuals with ties to regulated industries until 90 days before the primary election. He said he will accept all legal contributions, but at the same time try to reach out to donors from all walks of life.

"I'm trying to break the traditional mold that incumbents just rely on suport from those they regulate," Roth said.

Roth also said he likes the idea of corporation commissioners being elected in a statewide vote.

"I love Oklahoma's populist tradition and the notion that citizens ulitmately are in control," he said. "We're directly accountable and directly hired and fired by the public."

Johnson agreed, saying an appointed commissioner would not be directly accountable to the people he or she served. He said he has no problem with donations from individuals with regulated industries, as long as it doesn't affect a commissioner's decision-making process.

"I view it as a freedom of speech issue," Johnson said. "As a state lawmaker, I've accepted money from people and completely disagreed with them on a piece of legislation.

"It's about doing what's best for the people of the state."

Murphy said she believes money plays too big a role in statewide political campaigns, but that as long as candidates are required to disclose where donations come from, voters can take their concerns to the ballot box.

"It comes down to having integrity and ethics," Murphy said. "But I think disclosure is really important."

Former Corporation Commissioner Ed Apple, who was appointed to the panel by former Gov. Frank Keating in 1995 and elected to a full six-year term in 1996, said he believes an appointed system would encourage more qualified individuals to seek the position who might otherwise not be interested in running a statewide campaign.

"If you look at the applicant pool when there's a vacancy for an appointment, there are a lot of names that are submitted and qualified applicants who apply," Apple said. "But when you look at an open seat on the commission ... there are very few takers."

Whether a candidate is elected or appointed, it's impossible to remove politics from the equation, said Charles Acquard, executive director of the Maryland-based National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates.

"If you're appointed, you have some sort of allegiance to whoever appointed you, be it the governor or the Legislature," he said.

"I think you have some excellent commissioners that are elected and some excellent commissioners that are appointed. It really gets down to the individual person, if he is committed to doing a good job, then consumers will benefit, no matter what system gets them to the job."

 

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.