In Episode 7 of Season 2, Whitney Bryen reports on a nonprofit coalition that a federal audit claims misspent nearly $900,000 of taxpayer funds; Lionel Ramos reports on the changes to immigration policing in Oklahoma; and Jennifer Palmer reveals that a state legislator was also working for a grassroots lobbying organization. Ted Streuli hosts.

Legislator Ethics: Grassroots Lobbying And Conflicts Of Interest

Ted Streuli

Ted Streuli: Welcome to Long Story Short, sponsored by the Kirkpatrick Foundation. I’m Ted Streuli, the executive director at Oklahoma Watch. We’re a statewide nonprofit news organization that specializes in investigative reporting. You are listening to our weekly podcast, which lets you hear directly from our journalists as they provide deeper insight into their recently published stories.

This week, we’re talking to Jennifer Palmer who covers education for Oklahoma Watch. And Jennifer, you wrote about a state representative, Toni Hasenbeck, and her job at a nonprofit. Tell us about that.

Jennifer Palmer: Right. So Rep Hasenbeck worked for a short time last year for a nonprofit called Scissortail Development Corp. One of their main programs is ChoiceMatters and ChoiceMatters. Does a law of advocating for certain legislation, especially bills that expand or promote charter schools and other private school scholarship programs.

Ted Streuli: You, in that story, wrote that she kind of tiptoed into lobbying. What did you mean by that?

Jennifer Palmer

Jennifer Palmer: I wanna be clear. Rep. Hasenbeck was not a lobbyist. She described her employment as working with parents mostly. But ChoiceMatters, a lot of what they do is grassroots lobbying. It’s indirect lobbying. They do things like promote certain bills. They try to get their followers, their social media presence; they will promote the bill. They will encourage people to reach out to their lawmaker and vote a certain way.

Ted Streuli: Well, you can’t be a lobbyist and a legislator at the same time, right? So is this sort of indirect lobbying illegal?

Jennifer Palmer: There aren’t a lot of rules that address indirect lobbying. There was an effort a few years ago to try to add some rules and the legislature shot it down. So any employment situation, well, certain employment situations can be a conflict of interest, but there are a lot of factors.

Ted Streuli: First of all, can you maybe in a couple of sentences summarize again what grassroots lobbying is and then talk about how that differs from direct lobbying and does the group have any ties to direct lobbying?

Jennifer Palmer: Sure. So I would describe grassroots lobbying as attempting to influence legislation by involving the public. And a lot of times this looks like an email campaign or a social media campaign. And there are two main parts to it. One, they identify the specific piece of legislation, the bill number, and they also identify their position on it. “We are against this bill. We are for this bill,” and then they encourage their followers or whoever is reading this post to contact their lawmaker and encourage them to vote a certain way. They often make it very easy to, with say a form letter that somebody could just fill out really quickly and it goes directly to their lawmaker.

Ted Streuli: So indirectly I’m encouraging people who might have an interest in the bill to contact their legislators about it rather than contacting the legislator directly myself like a lobbyist would.

Jennifer Palmer: Right. Right.

Ted Streuli: And this same group though also has ties to direct lobbying?

Jennifer Palmer: They do. Robert Ruiz, who is the executive director of ChoiceMatters. He’s the president of Scissortail. So he leads both the nonprofit and the organization under the nonprofit. The program is what ChoiceMatters is — he’s been a registered lobbyist for several years now. He did let his registration lapse this year. So at the moment, he’s not a registered lobbyist with the state. And even when he was the last couple of years, his spending was very, very minimal.

Ted Streuli: And you, you talked to Rep. Hasenbeck, right? What did she say?

Jennifer Palmer: I did. I interviewed her several times and she defended her work with Scissortail. She said it was a chance to help families on the other side of the equation rather than the legislative side, which is more broad. It was more of a direct help where she would work with individual families. She said she admires the group’s mission and continues to support them.

Ted Streuli: Is she still working for that group?

Jennifer Palmer: No. It was a pretty short amount of time. I think it was just under three months that she was there. She said she left because the commute from Elgin was too much.

Ted Streuli: And when was that? In the fall sometime?

Jennifer Palmer: It was.

Ted Streuli: And what got you onto writing the story?

Jennifer Palmer: I had a reader send me a photo from the ChoiceMatters Facebook page of Rep. Hasenbeck leading a presentation with ChoiceMatters’ parent group. Um, it was interesting to them and the reason we wanted to look into it was because she was inside the Capitol wearing her state lawmaker ID, but also working for this group. So that’s the kind of potential conflict of interest that we wanted to look into. And, you know, the job at ChoiceMatters was paid. And I think that’s a big part of the issue.

Ted Streuli: Well, talk about that a little bit. Because the story really raises the question of whether this is a conflict of interest and at the heart of that is public officials collecting a salary for their job at the legislature — $47,500 a year, like everybody else. But then it raises the question when you’re wearing your state lawmaker ID and you’re at the Capitol, but you’re also getting paid by another organization and you’re perhaps doing some work for them at the same time. Doesn’t that raise the question of whether you’re using your position as a legislature to personally profit?

Jennifer Palmer: Right. I mean the whole idea of the conflict of interest, you really have to look at that person’s motivation, which is difficult. I mean, that’s something that really they know most closely, but the ethics expert that I talked to said that because we hold lawmakers to a high standard, it’s a powerful position. They’re elected officials. So they do have certain standards that they need to meet. And doing this, being a lawmaker and working for this nonprofit that has certain sides on legislation, it really does call into question who she’s really working for.

Ted Streuli: Or at least where the priorities are at any given moment. In your story, you kind of found that there may not be anything illegal about that particular combination, but that there are some concerns about how it looks.

Jennifer Palmer: That’s right.

Ted Streuli: And we think that’s what got some people up in arms. It just looks bad even if it’s not strictly against the law.

Jennifer Palmer: I think so. And I think some would maybe say there should be rules when it comes to indirect lobbying. Like I said earlier, there was an effort a couple of years ago to add some transparency to that. It’s becoming more common. I think to use this type of grassroots lobbying; there’s certainly a big push to use it. And it’s pretty effective. It’s gotten a lot less expensive to put up this form letter and to very easily send out hundreds of emails at once. Whereas in the past it might have been more time consuming and costly if you were having to hand write a letter and mail them to each legislator or something like that.

Ted Streuli: Great. Well, thanks, Jennifer. You can read Jennifer’s story about the question of lobbying and at www.oklahomawatch.org, along with all her other investigative work.

Vacations Instead of Victims Services: An Oklahoma Nonprofits’ Mission Compromised

Ted Streuli: We’re talking this morning to Whitney Bryen, who covers vulnerable populations for Oklahoma Watch. Whitney found that the (Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault) misspent a lot of federal grant money. Whitney, how’d you hear about that story?

Whitney Bryen

Whitney Bryen: Well, I’ve been covering domestic violence for a few years now and someone who follows my reporting tipped us off that there had been an audit and that victim’s services could be in trouble based on those findings. So I did a quick Google search and immediately found the report which had been published on the Department of Justice website a few months earlier. That coalition obviously kept things pretty quiet, which is why we didn’t know about it before then.

Ted Streuli: And what did the auditors find? What did you read?

Whitney Bryen: Well, according to the report, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, they mismanaged more than $886,000 in public money while it was under the direction of Candida Manion, which was from about 2015 to 2020. So over that five-year period, taxpayer or money that was supposed to support victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault instead was being spent on things like employee and board member vacations.

Ted Streuli: Give us some other examples of how that money was spent and where it went.

Whitney Bryen: Well, some of the more egregious findings were in the coalitions travel expenses, according to this audit. So Canda Manion, who was the coalition’s director at this time, she used taxpayer money to travel to conferences in popular vacation spots like Southern California and Florida. Some other former employees told me that she would call the office while she was at conferences around 3 p.m. to let them know she had just woken up. She had not attended conference sessions that day and had just decided to start doing some work for the day. In (2019) Manion and one of her employees skipped a day of conference sessions in Southern California to go on a wine tasting tour instead of learning about helping victims. And in another case, she’s accused of using public money to send board members (on) trips as sort of a kickback so that they wouldn’t question the other spending.

Ted Streuli: So who is Candida Manion? What do we know about her?

Whitney Bryen: Manion was hired as the coalition’s director in 2014, and I’ve actually interviewed her several times over the years for other domestic violence stories. She’s really a face that promotes (the) prevention of domestic abuse and sexual assault here in the state. I talked to her several times. We often swapped stories about things we were hearing from victims of abuse and we both lived in Norman. So I ran into her a lot at public events around these topics. She didn’t have any experience with victim services prior to this position. But she did always have a piece of paper in her pocket with stats on domestic violence and sexual assault and things were happening in the state. So she seemed truly outraged by what was happening to people, at least that was my takeaway.

Ted Streuli: You talked about some of the travel expenses the auditors questioned. Were there other kinds of expenses the auditors noted?

Whitney Bryen: Absolutely. Not all of the expenses were travel related. Another big chunk of money that’s being questioned was for employee salaries and benefits. In that case, the problem is not what the money is being spent on but how it was being documented, or in this case not documented properly. Employees, for instance, were keeping time sheets, but Manion wasn’t reviewing them or signing off on them as a supervisor. I saw years of time sheets that had never been reviewed by her. That’s why those costs are being questioned now. And Manion wasn’t keeping any of her own time sheets either. In fact, at one point she asked a board member to retroactively sign off on some of her own time sheets during that audit.

Ted Streuli: Can you tell us a little about the organization? What do they do?

Whitney Bryen: Well, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault has been around for about 40 years now in Oklahoma. It’s a nonprofit that supports the programs that support victims. So domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, counseling services and other programs that help victims, they can pay a $1,000 a year fee to become members of the coalition. And then those programs, which are scattered all over the state, including Oklahoma City and Tulsa as well as rural areas, they receive coordination from the coalition. So the coalition provides things like training to folks who work at those entities. They work with lawmakers to help develop public policy, put on awareness events. They’re even teaching law enforcement and prosecutors about collecting evidence and working with witnesses in those kinds of cases. I talked to a program director at a Lawton shelter who told me that they really need the coalition’s support to keep continue doing what they’re doing.

Ted Streuli: And most of the coalition’s budget — even though they charge $1,000 to join — most of their budget comes from that federal grants. Is that right?

Whitney Bryen: That’s right. They make $1,000 off each organization that’s a member of theirs right now. They are about 28 members. So that’s about $28,000 a year, but obviously, that’s a pretty minor portion of their budget as compared to what they’re receiving in federal dollars.

Ted Streuli: And how common is it when a big federal grant is involved for federal auditors to uncover that kind of misspending?

Whitney Bryen: Audits, in general, are fairly common for these types of organizations that are receiving public money, but the audit results in this case are pretty extraordinary. I found a couple of recent audits of similar organizations in Montana and South Dakota where auditors did find some discrepancies in their spending, but the amount in question here in Oklahoma is about 10 times higher than those other states. So the scale of misspending here is really on another level.

Ted Streuli: And have there been any consequences for that?

Whitney Bryen: Absolutely. So a couple months after auditors told the coalition’s board members that they had found some of this misspending Manion was fired and given two months severance. And then three other employees quit around that same time, which left only one person working for the coalition. So the coalition’s board hired an interim director and also an attorney. And I’m told that those folks are currently working with the Office on Violence Against Women — that’s organization that provided the funding — to try to sort things out.

Ted Streuli: So what does that look like for the organization going forward?

Whitney Bryen: Well, we don’t know yet. It’s up to the Office on Violence against Women to decide what’s going to happen next. They could make the coalition pay back all of that money. They could make them pay back some of that money, or they could forgive the higher amount — nearly $900,00. They could suspend or even ban the coalition from receiving federal money in the future. And criminal charges could be filed, which recently happened in a similar case at a nonprofit in Montana. So the coalition could even be disbanded, leaving victim services without, any support. It’s really a waiting game. At this point, we don’t know what’s going to happen or when it will happen.

Ted Streuli: What has Candida Manion had to say about the audit?

Whitney Bryen: Candida, did not respond to any text messages. I messaged her on social media and called her several times. Never heard back from her or her attorney, who I also reached out to.

Ted Streuli: And really the big question here is if that potentially puts all that grant money in jeopardy. What does that mean for abuse victims in Oklahoma?

Whitney Bryen: Well, ultimately it means it could become harder for Oklahomans who are being abused to find help and to find a safe place to stay. We already have really high rates of child abuse and domestic violence here. So this could really be devastating for Oklahoma.

Ted Streuli: Well, thanks, Whitney. In this segment, we’ve been talking to Whitney Bryen, who covers vulnerable populations for Oklahoma Watch. You can read this story and all her other investigative work at www.oklahomawatch.org.

How Immigration Is Policed In Oklahoma

Ted Streuli: In this segment, I’m talking to Lionel Ramos who covers race and equity for Oklahoma Watch. Lionel’s been working on a story about how immigration is policed in Oklahoma and how that’s changed over the past few years. Lionel what was the big takeaway from this story?

Lionel Ramos

Lionel Ramos: So the main thing that I learned was that fewer people are being held in ICE detention around the country and the state, and fewer of them have been arrested for nonviolent crimes. In Tulsa County in 2021, for example, there was a 48% drop in the total number of detainees. And 78% of them were arrested for driving under the influence, which is a viable reason for deportation under current federal enforcement priorities.

Ted Streuli: You mentioned that there’s been a decrease in the number of detainees. What’s the reason for that?

Lionel Ramos: So I spoke to immigration advocates, Dream Action Oklahoma, and New Sanctuary Empowerment Center or El Centro in Tulsa. And I also spoke to some local law enforcement. Sheriff Vic Regalado, for example. And two main things kept popping up: a change in the presidential administration, which has meant a more relaxed immigration policy at the federal level and the onset of the COVID 19 pandemic, which kept people off the streets.

Ted Streuli: You mentioned the change in the White House. What has that meant for immigration policing here in Oklahoma?

Lionel Ramos: Well, the president can set his own priorities for what kind of person gets deported after being arrested. It’s based on the level of a threat a person might pose to their community or the country as a whole. Just very quickly, someone who’s a threat to national security, for example, might get deported much more easier than someone who has ties to their local community. Maybe has a job or something under Biden. The reasons for which someone may be deported have narrowed. So local agencies have had to revise their contracts with ICE to accommodate for that.

Ted Streuli: In the story you mentioned contracts. Tell us about that.

Lionel Ramos: So going back to the Tulsa example, the county was engaged in two contracts with ICE up until 2021 that allowed deputies to identify and detain someone on the basis of their immigration status once they’re in the jail. And another allowed the county’s main jail, David L. Moss, to hold immigration detainees for the federal government. Together, the contracts worked to be able to identify detain and hold and eventually deport someone who was arrested locally.

Ted Streuli: And there were revisions to those. Can you give us an example of what some of those revisions might look like for a local agency?

Lionel Ramos: So now, in Tulsa, the officers can still identify undocumented individuals, but they have to flag them and ping the ice office in Washington, D.C., And then wait for confirmation from that office to detain the individual. And that takes a while. And so if ice wants to assume custody, they have to pick up the detainee from the jail within three days. It’s how the new contract works. And then they take them to a federal facility. If they don’t want to assume custody because that person doesn’t fall under the enforcement and priorities at the national level, that person may bail out or their county-level charges may be dropped and they can be released.

Ted Streuli: So what do we think the real effects of those changes are gonna be?

Lionel Ramos: So like I said earlier, those agreements work together to identify and hold someone until they face immigration court. So Sheriff Vic Regalado said that while fewer people are being deported, it’s easier for serious criminals to be released too. Legally the county can’t hold someone longer than 48 hours for charges they receive at the local level. So they have to be identified by the local jail and then pinged ICE. And then ICE has to agree, and all of that takes time and the person might be released before that’s all resolved.

Ted Streuli: So potentially, in addition to some minor things or immigration-only issues, it’s possible that somebody with some more serious offenses could slip through those cracks and end up back out on the streets.

Lionel Ramos: That’s what Sheriff Vic Regalado says. He gave me an example of someone that the Tulsa County Sheriff’s office arrested in 2019, early 2020. And he was a known drug runner and they arrested him and he actually ended up bailing out and disappearing within three hours before the confirmation from ICE was received.

Ted Streuli: At the beginning of the conversation, you mentioned immigration advocates. What do those people make of these changes?

Lionel Ramos: So advocates say that while aggressive immigration policing has slowed down, the continued existence of contracts like the ones I describe leave room for racial profiling by police towards people in Hispanic immigrant communities. The people I spoke to said they’ve stepped back from the kind of protesting they were doing a couple of years ago, where they used to stand out in front of David L. Moss and peacefully protest. They stopped because of the new policies and the dangers of the pandemic. But they worry about a conservative president coming in and changing the laws again. And then the contracts can just be revised to fit those new enforcement priorities at the federal level. So (their worry) about aggressive policing coming back is really the main thing.

Ted Streuli: And how about Hispanic Oklahomans in general?

Lionel Ramos: Among Hispanic Oklahomans, there’s kind of a base level of distrust in local law enforcement, especially those who are undocumented or are non-citizens residents, permanent residents. That distrust has existed for many years and for a few different reasons. But the people that I spoke to for this story have generally early agreed that people are more relaxed now with this new administration compared to Donald Trump’s administration, and they feel protected from deportation. They don’t feel like they have to worry about leaving and not coming back to their house.

Ted Streuli: Thanks, Lionel. You can read Lionel’s story about immigration policing in Oklahoma and the changes going on there, along with all of his other investigative work at www.oklahomawatch.org,

Ted Streuli: You’ve been listening to Long Story Short, a weekly podcast that helps you get deeper into the investigative stories reported by Oklahoma Watch, which you can find on www.oklahomawatch.org. This podcast was made possible by a grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation, for which we’re grateful. For Oklahoma Watch, I’m Ted. Streuli. Thanks for listening.

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