Hundreds of donors and supporters are welcoming Kevin Stitt as Oklahoma’s 28th governor during four days of events that started Thursday, including a pair of black-tie balls, gourmet dinners and entertainment from a country-music star.

The pre-inaugural events are a lavish and at times controversial tradition shared by newly elected presidents and governors across the country. The events will be entirely funded by private money from the new governor’s backers or those looking to gain good will with the administration.

If past inaugurations are a guide, Stitt will likely raise more than $1 million from wealthy individuals, companies and special-interest groups that are allowed to contribute without limits.

But those donors can be kept secret for up to six months, until well after this year’s legislative session is over. This is just the second gubernatorial inauguration whose funders’ names can be withheld for months – a delay allowed under an Ethics Commission rule change.

Stitt’s camp isn’t saying yet who is donating the money to pay for the festivities or when exactly the donor information will be disclosed, except that it will be before the six-month deadline.

Oklahoma does provide more transparency than some other states, which allow inauguration donors to be kept secret indefinitely.  But one legislator and a watchdog group questioned whether Oklahoma’s rule, which took effect just before Gov. Mary Fallin’s second inaugural in 2015, can be an effective check on efforts to court favor when disclosure of donors isn’t timely.

“There is no reason – good public policy reasons – for such a lengthy delay in requiring the fundraising and spending,” said Paul Ryan, vice president of Common Cause, a nonpartisan group that promotes government transparency. “It’s a disservice to the public and watchdogs who want to keep an eye on special interests and look out for corruption.”

Disclosure and Influence

Before the 2014 rule change, campaign committees’ quarterly fundraising reports included information on inauguration and transition funds. The new commission rule doesn’t require donor or spending information to be released until 180 days after the last event.

The change generated little controversy at the time.

As Stitt prepares for his Monday inauguration, Minority Floor Leader Rep. David Perryman, D-Chickasha, said the combination of unlimited fundraising and Oklahoma’s lengthy disclosure period contributes to the potentially corrupting influence of money in state politics.

He said influence peddling from inauguration contributors is especially egregious because, unlike with campaign contributions, donors can be certain their money is going to the person who won the race.

“It is a fiction to believe that an elected official who receives unlimited and unrestricted donations for banquets, balls and other events celebrating victory is subject to a lesser degree of influence than a candidate who receives tightly regulated donations during their candidacy,” Perryman said. “Even with disclosure requirements, transparency has little value when it comes months after the fact.”

Stitt spokeswoman Donelle Harder did not say whether the new administration will try to file the inauguration disclosure report earlier than the deadline or if Stitt believes the process should be more transparent. She said the transition team will file the report after all transactions are complete, bills are paid and the disclosure documents are reviewed.

“Our priority is transparency and thoroughness,” she said.

Moving boxes are seen outside of the door to the governor’s office in the state Capitol on Jan. 4. Kevin Stitt will be inaugurated Oklahoma’s next governor on Jan. 14. Credit: Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

Increasingly Expensive

 Inaugurals can be costly affairs.

Each of Fallin’s and former Gov. Brad Henry’s inaugurals cost more than $750,000. Fallin’s first inauguration in 2011 set an all-time state record after she raised more than $1.4 million for festivities.

Stitt could very well set a new record this year.

In addition to the free swearing-in ceremony and prayer service, Stitt’s transition team is hosting a $25-per-family children’s festival, a $75-per-ticket “Bison Bash” barbecue dinner with music from country star Jimmie Allen in Lawton, a $150-per-ticket black tie gala in Tulsa featuring Christian rock band MercyMe and the $250-per-ticket Oklahoma City ball showcasing country singer Toby Keith and the Oklahoma City Philharmonic.

The ticket prices are much higher than the $150 entry for Fallin’s ball in 2015 and the $125 in 2011.

If Fallin and Henry’s fundraising activities are a guide, the standard ticket prices will only cover a fraction of the events.

Ethics Commission filings show that small donors, giving $1,000 or less, made up a combined 12 percent of contributions to Fallin’s two inauguration events and 14 percent of Henry’s second inauguration.

The rest came from businesses, trade groups and wealthy donors, who can contribute as much as they like. That contrasts with campaigns, for which donations are capped at $2,700 per candidate per election. (If a candidate has a primary challenger and then faces a runoff and general election challenge, they can can raise up to $8,100 from each donor.)

In the past decade, this has allowed donors like Devon Energy, Chesapeake Energy and the Chickasaw Nation to spend thousands of dollars every four years beyond their already hefty spending on campaigns.

Stitt proved to be a successful fundraiser last year after raising more than $5.2 million, in addition to the $4.8 million of his own money, and likely won’t have trouble raising money for his inauguration.

The Oklahoma Banking Association, for example, announced shortly after Christmas that it set a goal of raising at least $10,000 “to show industry support for our new governor” and sponsor a table at the inaugural ball. The group, in a message to members posted on its website, notes that corporate contributions are allowed.

Harder, spokeswoman for Stitt, declined to say how much the transition team plans to raise or how much of it will come from corporate donors. But she said unlike during the campaign, Stitt does not plan to use his own money for the inaugural or transition costs. She added that in organizing the inaugural events, Stitt was “thoughtful on the process” and wanted to ensure “all Oklahomans had the opportunity to celebrate the future of our great state.” She said this included offering free tickets to foster families for the children’s festival and limiting sponsored tables, which are purchased at a higher cost, to just 20 percent of the Oklahoma City and Tulsa black-tie galas.

“These events across Oklahoma give us an opportunity to come together as one state, look to the future and celebrate what we can accomplish together when we are united around one vision,” she said.

Ryan, of Common Cause, said it is a good sign that some states, such as Maryland, have recently passed laws to add more transparency to inaugural activities.

But without new disclosure requirements or caps on donations, spending on gubernatorial inaugurations will likely continue to increase, he said.

“We need to ask the question if we really need these big expensive parties,” Ryan said. “Sure, they sound great, but when the bill is being footed by special interests, the threat of corruption outweighs the importance of these big elaborate affairs.”

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