She voted for and often co-authored legislation expanding school choice in 2021, earning her an “A+” in the grassroots lobbying group ChoiceMatters’ ranking of state lawmakers.

Months later, that group’s parent organization hired State Rep. Toni Hasenbeck, R-Elgin, for a paid position where she spent some of her time teaching parents how to advocate for school choice, including at the Legislature. ChoiceMatters regularly emails its members with messages to support certain legislation by contacting their representatives. 

On her last day, Hasenbeck attended a parent leadership class at the Capitol. A photo posted to ChoiceMatters’ Facebook page shows her presenting to the group, wearing her lawmaker ID. 

Her work exemplifies the potential conflict of interest legislators’ day jobs can have on the job voters entrust them with, according to John Pelissero, a senior scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

It can be problematic for a legislator to have a job where they lobby for state legislation, said Pelissero. 

“It does present a conflict of interest because, as an elected official, the legislator should be representing the public interest. And if you’re working for a company or a nonprofit organization in which you are seeking to influence the outcome of legislation, then it’ll raise questions about whether some private interest is first and foremost in the mind of the legislator, rather than the public,” Pelissero said. 

Hasenbeck and ChoiceMatters defended her employment. They said she actually worked for Scissortail Community Development Corporation, ChoiceMatters’ parent organization and a nonprofit that, due to federal tax laws, can not spend a substantial portion of its activities on lobbying. 

“There are no laws or ethics rules preventing a lawmaker from working for a 501(c)3,” said Alex Weintz, partner at Amber Integrated public affairs firm, whose client is ChoiceMatters. 

Hasenbeck said she left because she grew tired of the commute, which is about 90 minutes from Elgin.

“My feelings about working for a nonprofit that helped families is: I’m doing everything at the House, using all of my years of experience in business and education, and I felt like if I could help families on the other side, that’s like somebody actually getting to make a difference in the world,” Hasenbeck said.  

‘I Wasn’t Presenting Myself As A Representative’

State Rep. Toni Hasenbeck, R-Elgin,  presents during a parent leadership class for ChoiceMatters, a pro-school choice grassroots lobbying organization. Hasenbeck worked for the organization at the time. (Photo posted Nov. 22, 2021, by ChoiceMatters on Facebook.)

ChoiceMatters and Scissortail regularly post the same messages on social media. Both are led by Robert Ruiz, who is ChoiceMatters’ executive director and Scissortail’s president. He was a registered lobbyist from 2019 to 2021 but did not renew for 2022, records show.

Hasenbeck served as an associate director at Scissortail from Aug. 31 to Nov. 21. 

“We were really careful so that I wasn’t presenting myself as a representative when I talked to families. I felt pretty strongly about that,” she said. 

Scissortail’s purpose, according to its most recent federal tax form, is to “improve the physical and social infrastructures in blighted neighborhoods” in low-income communities across Oklahoma. It hosts several annual Hispanic cultural festivals and mariachi programs. 

ChoiceMatters is one of its programs. Its mission is to educate, inform and provide resources to Oklahoma parents about educational options, according to its website. It champions charter schools, programs that provide public funds for private school tuition, and voucher programs — like the one proposed this year by Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat. 

Scissortail’s main funder is the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune. The Walton Family Foundation gave Scissortail grants worth more than $2 million from 2015-2000.  The Waltons are staunch supporters of the school-choice movement and in 2016, pledged to spend $1 billion supporting charter schools and other choice initiatives, like voucher programs.

Some of Scissortail’s work includes grassroots lobbying, which is attempting to influence legislation by involving the public, such as urging people to contact their lawmaker. Messaging typically takes a position on a certain piece of legislation and what action to take, such as to email or call your legislator. The group sometimes provides form letters so supporters can  quickly and easily contact lawmakers en masse.

For example, on Feb. 7, both ChoiceMatters and Scissortail posted messages to Facebook about Senate Bill 1647, which would create a universal education voucher system, using public education dollars to fund private school tuition and homeschool supplies. The posts encourage parents to email their lawmaker, ask them to support the bill, and provide a link that auto-generates a message.

What State Law Says

To be sure, many nonprofit organizations and social media groups on all sides use grassroots lobbying to influence legislation. Hiring a sitting lawmaker, though, makes ChoiceMatters’ situation unusual. 

Pelissero, who has authored dozens of articles on politics and public administration and co-authored a book called “Managing Urban America,” said ethical issues arise when there’s an appearance of conflict, even if there’s not a formal conflict. 

“Members of the public would wonder, is this legislator looking out for the people of Oklahoma or for the nonprofit organization?” he said.

Lawmakers are prohibited from personally being lobbyists, but other employment situations can also be a conflict of interest depending on the circumstances, said Ashley Kemp, executive director of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. 

“Due to the varied nature of public service and personal circumstances, what may present a conflict for one position or individual may not be a conflict for another,” she said. All complaints and investigations to the commission are confidential unless a lawsuit is filed, a settlement reached, or the commission deems the information in the public interest.

Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, in 2019 requested commission rules to require certain nonprofits like dark money groups to report their spending, but the effort failed.

Not speaking about Hasenbeck directly, Blancett said a lawmaker working for a nonprofit that lobbies for legislation or political candidates or state questions is problematic. Blancett works for a nonprofit, Creative Oklahoma, which does not lobby, directly or indirectly. 

“They certainly have a right as a citizen to support their cause, but once you get paid to participate, that brings into question whether you are using your public office to benefit yourself financially,” she said.

Under state law, a conflict of interest exists when a lawmaker or state employee engages in activities or has interests that “conflict with the proper discharge of their duties and responsibilities.” Lawmakers, judges and statewide elected officials are required to disclose all material financial interests each year. 

Duties Included ‘Parent Leadership Development, Community Organizing’

Hasenbeck’s 2020 report doesn’t list any financial interests. Reports for 2021, when she worked for Scissortail, aren’t due until May 15. 

As an associate director for Scissortail, Hasenbeck’s duties included “parent leadership development, adult education and community organizing,” said Weintz. 

He would not say how much Hasenbeck earned at Scissortail. 

All Oklahoma lawmakers earn $47,500 a year. 

Hasenbeck was first elected to a two-year term in the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 2018 and is running for re-election this year. She supports better pay for educators but has criticized the tax increase passed by the Legislature in 2018 to increase teacher pay. 

For the upcoming session, she’s proposed a bill to incrementally expand the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program, which provides private school tuition to students with disabilities, as well as a bill to boost the bonuses to educators who earn National Board certification to $7,500. 

She has been an educator for nearly two decades and taught at Elgin Middle School. 

In an interview with Oklahoma Watch, she said she left Scissortail because of the long commute but continues to admire the organization’s mission of working to improve educational outcomes for students, particularly low-income or minority students. 

In her time there, she never dealt with families whose children attended private schools and mostly counseled parents on how to improve their situation in public schools, Hasenbeck said. 

Charles McCall, speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, was unaware of Hasenbeck’s work for Scissortail, according to his spokesperson. 

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or jpalmer@oklahomawatch.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.

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