Oklahoma Ethics Commission

A Question of Ethics


Steven Dow in a video by Oklahoma Watchdog.org

Has the Oklahoma Ethics Commission acted in an unethical manner?

I sense a lot of people are asking that question after the commission first publicly reprimanded a former member of the Commission of Human Services on a somewhat questionable issue and then suddenly took back that reprimand with little comment.

Shouldn’t a state ethics commission be transparent? What’s the point of even having such a board if it isn’t?

The commission reprimanded Steven Dow, executive director of the Community Action Project of Tulsa County, a nonprofit agency, for a conflict of interest because the agency does some business with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. Dow, until he recently resigned, served as a member of the Commission of Human Services, which oversees DHS.

The commission reprimanded Dow May 29 despite the fact that he had already cleared his appointment with former Gov. Brad Henry’s office and despite the fact that he is not paid by the agency he leads. The initial reprimand was greeted by many political observers with surprise for those reasons and because Dow has community stature and is widely known as someone with integrity.

Dow chose to resign after the reprimand apparently to avoid bringing more turmoil to the commission given recent DHS controversies, but he maintained that since he couldn’t benefit financially from DHS’s relationship with his agency the reprimand was misguided. Many people agreed with him.

All that was more than enough to raise eyebrows, primarily because it sent a terrible message to people who are currently serving in volunteer positions on state boards or people who might want to serve in the future. Why risk your reputation in the face of this example of pettiness? Dow was also known as someone who asked hard questions and took his job seriously on the DHS commission. Is that why he was targeted?

In the above Oklahoma Watchdog.org video, Dow graciously declines to address that last question, but he does outline what appear to be the unjust processes of the ethics commission.

But then last Friday the ethics commission took it all back by voting to rescind the initial reprimand. It issued a terse statement that claimed the original reprimand was “inadvertent.” The commission’s chairperson, Karen Long, declined to comment further, according to a Tulsa World article. One commission member who voted against rescinding the reprimand wouldn’t even comment, the article stated.

Although Dow and many others were pleased with the news, the commission’s actions should be raising red flags for state leaders. How can a so-called “ethics commission” get away with dragging someone’s reputation through the mud and then, without much comment, take it all back?

What was the reasoning behind the decision? Why was the reprimand issued in the first place? Of all of the numerous state boards, the ethics commission should be as transparent as possible. One of its missions, according to its web site, is “promulgating rules of ethical conduct for state officers and employees, including civil penalties for violations of such rules . . . “. Did the commission itself act ethically in this matter?

Who applies ethics to the ethics commission?

The larger question is whether the commission has now lost credibility. For example, both the editorial pages of the Tulsa World and The Oklahoman questioned the commission’s actions. I sense many people will take the commission’s actions in the immediate future as just more fodder in ongoing political battles. That’s a shame because state government needs an independent, transparent watchdog board.

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