Rice wants Attorney General Pruitt to study use of private pay for Education Department senior staff

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published 19-Feb-2011

Oklahoma state Senate minority leader Andrew Rice, an Oklahoma City Democrat, has asked Attorney General Scott Pruitt to investigate the use of private resources to pay two senior staffers to the new state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

In a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, Rice said:

“My caucus and I are concerned with the possible impropriety of the State Department of Education being directed by senior staff who apparently are being paid by a private foundation, rather that state appropriated dollars.”

At mid-week, Rice said he “submitted a request to Attorney General Pruitt asking his office to look into the possible constitutional and ethics problems that may exist with privately funded personnel supervising and managing state employees, and using state resources and property. There are a myriad of potential problems that could result from this scenario in regards to the constitutional limits on private gifts to public officials, and tort liability issues for the State Department of Education.

“We look forward to seeing the results of the Attorney General’s inquiry into these matters and expect the outcome to bring about a strict adherence to the constitutional and statutory obligations that fall on all Oklahoma State officers.”

Since she took office a month ago, the two members of Barresi’s staff have worked without government pay, and instead are compensated by a private foundation. She had hoped to change them to state employee status at her contentious first meeting with the Board of Education, a move the board effectively prevented during a session where Barresi and her aides were under steady rhetorical attack from two members of the board appointed by former Governor Brad Henry.
Barresi is the only statewide elected official subject to the governance of a board. However, the requirements are statutory, not constitutional. While the board is a constitutional body, its powers and function are defined in statutes.
This week, Rice’s colleague, state Sen. John Ford of Bartlesville, offered Senate Bill 435, a proposal to restore other state elected officers or their designees to the board of education, as was the state’s practice before 1971. Senate Bill 718, a proposal made in the first week of the legislative session was arguably more aggressive, stripping the board of most of its powers. Both of the bills have cleared committee and are pending on the Senate floor.
Andrew Spiropoulos, a professor of constitutional at Oklahoma City University and the Friedman Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, pointed to the underlying process and legal issues in the joust between Barresi and the board:
“The architects of our national government long ago explained that the prerequisites for good government are energy, stability, and accountability. There is no doubt having our educational system run by Gov. Brad Henry’s people long after his departure makes for a more stable government. But a government that both lacks the power to reform itself and ignores the clear command of the people to change is no good at all.”