A company headed by a Republican House member was paid tens of thousands of dollars to help throw a lavish party in honor of House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, raising conflict-of-interest questions.
An Oklahoma Ethics Commission report shows Poligram, an event planning and management firm founded and run by Rep. Mike Osburn, R-Edmond, was paid $40,000 in operating expenses related to planning the 2019 Oklahoma Speaker’s Ball.
The event traditionally attracts lawmakers, lobbyists, business leaders and advocates as they prepare to kick off the legislative session each year.
This year, organizers raised a record-setting $520,000 from businesses, special interest groups and other private donors. Of that amount, $428,000 went to hosting the party, featuring dinner and a concert by the Nashville-based Downtown Band on Jan. 26 at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
The top expenses included $120,100 to About Last Night, another event planning company, $72,050 to the Petroleum Club and a $50,000 donation to Tenaciously Teal – one of two charities that received a total of $75,000 from the event – and $40,000 to Poligram for a mix of management, event and website service fees.
Osburn, who could not be reached for comment Thursday and Friday, started Poligram in 2006, according to a Secretary of State business filing, and has listed his ownership of the company on each of his annual financial disclosure statements.
According to the company’s website, it offers services that include association management, communications, event production and leadership development. State Ethics Commission and Federal Election Commission records show the only other time Poligram was paid by a political or campaign committee was in 2008, when it received $1,000 during a state Senate race.
In addition to Osburn, two co-workers are listed on the website: Osburn’s wife, Holly, who is director of organizational consulting, and Marian Free, director of operations.
On top of the $40,000 paid to Poligram, the Ethics Commission filing shows that Free, who also serves as executive director of the Speaker’s Ball, a nonprofit group, was paid nearly $22,000 for various services.
Minority Floor Leader Rep. David Perryman, D-Chickasha, said privately funded events that benefit politicians, such as the Speaker’s Ball and gubernatorial or presidential inaugurations, are “rife with the potential for political favor and influence.” However, he didn’t allege that any illegal activity occurred with the Speaker’s Ball.
He noted that it is particularly concerning that the $40,000 paid to Poligram could be used to enrich a fellow legislator.
“When the funds that are donated for those events are channeled back into the pockets of other elected officials or into private entities owned by other elected officials, there must be scrutiny, and the scrutiny requires transparency,” Perryman said. “We often hear the phrase, ‘Follow the money,’ and transactions this large give rise to concern.”[table “” not found /]
McCall’s office declined to comment and instead referred questions to Robert McCampbell, an Oklahoma City lawyer and former U.S. attorney, who serves as chairman for the Oklahoma Speaker’s Ball.
McCampbell insisted that the spending was not politically motivated or that no quid pro quo existed.
He said the Speaker’s Ball is a registered nonprofit with a board of directors and McCall didn’t have a direct role in deciding where or how the money was spent, with the exception of nominating which charities will receive funds.
“The Speaker of the House in any given year is not part of the management of the Speaker’s Ball and does not make decisions on vendors,” McCampbell said.
McCampbell also said that Osburn has been working with the Speaker’s Ball since 2014 – two years before he was elected to the House – when he provided logistics. Those included managing online and onsite registrations through another company, Plan Ahead Events, that he previously headed.
McCampbell added Poligram’s bill was relatively high because Free joined Poligram before this year’s ball, so some of her payment went directly to her and some went through Poligram.
Perryman countered that “in the realm of political fundraising, avoiding the appearance of impropriety is as important as avoiding impropriety itself.” He said it should be up to organizers to justify how exactly the value of services matched the amount billed.
“In no-bid contracts for events like the Speaker’s Ball, that inquiry is even more important,” he said.
The costs of these types of events have been in the spotlight lately, as The Oklahoman reported that Gov. Kevin Stitt’s inauguration in February cost a record-setting $2.4 million.
The Speaker’s Ball similarly set a record this year in both the amount spent and raised, beating the previous record-high amounts of $443,300 raised and $366,900 spent in 2017. McCampbell said one reason for the increase is that 2018’s ball was cancelled as lawmakers were dealing with a special session to deal with budget issues.
Although the events occurred at the start of the year, the public is only recently getting a look at the donations and spending because a 2014 rule change allows organizers nearly six months to file financial reports.
Democrats have called for organizers to not delay and file the reports when all the debts are settled. For the Speaker’s Ball, the report was filed July 19, or six days before the deadline.