Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) praised the panel of witnesses at a recent Transportation and Infrastructure Committee field hearing in his district, saying, “The best ideas come from individuals who see and breathe the issues not just from Washington.”
But it doesn’t hurt if those individuals are also campaign donors.
Among the panel of four private-sector witnesses at the hearing held at Oklahoma City Community College in February, three were donors to the freshman lawmaker’s campaign last cycle.
The fourth private-sector witness did not donate, although employees of his small business did. The two remaining witnesses were state government officials.
There are no rules prohibiting campaign donors from appearing before Congressional committees, and several government reform advocates acknowledged that it is not uncommon for a witness to have given funds to a Member.
But those observers said it is remarkable to have so many donors on a single panel.
“When you have these things that are supposed to be representative of the community and everyone is a campaign supporter, that does seem a little bit odd,” said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation.
“Most Americans do not give to political candidates,” Allison added, suggesting that an “inside-the-Beltway mentality” may at times affect witness selection.
“When you’re reaching out to people to be part of the process or part of a public event, you think of people you know who have given you money or who you want to solicit for money,” Allison said. “It’s kind of a self-perpetuating cycle.”
Asked about the prevalence of donors at that hearing, Lankford spokesman Will Allison (no relation to Bill Allison) defended the lawmaker’s witness selection process.
“Congressman Lankford consulted with local industry professionals and transportation officials for recommendations for potential witnesses,” Will Allison said in an e-mail. “Those who testified are among the most respected in the industry, representing businesses that have served Oklahoma for generations. They were selected for their knowledge of transportation policy and ability to effectively articulate the challenges facing Oklahoma’s surface transportation system.”
Transportation Committee spokesman Justin Harclerode noted the panel has held several field hearings this year to prepare for the next highway reauthorization bill and said the committee “relied more” on the Members in whose districts the hearings are held to select witnesses. Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) led the Oklahoma City field hearing.
“The main reason for holding those field hearings was to get away from the usual folks you see in a hearing that you might hold in Washington ... and get some more info from local officials and local stakeholders,” Harclerode said. “We really wanted a different focus ... a more local, hands-on perspective.”
Witnesses are asked to provide a résumé and to sign a document labeled a “truth in testimony” disclosure, stating whether they receive any federal grants.
Harclerode said Members are not given any guidance on selecting witnesses, apart from choosing individuals familiar with the topic of the hearing.
Witnesses at the hearing included Gov. Mary Fallin (R), who previously held Lankford’s 5th district seat, and Oklahoma Transportation Secretary Gary Ridley. Neither Fallin nor Ridley were donors to Lankford’s campaign.
The panel also included three Oklahoma-based small-business owners and a former state transportation secretary and transportation advocate.
Campaign finance records compiled by CQ MoneyLine show Edmond, Okla.-based Duit Construction President James Duit donated $2,400 to Lankford in September.
Duit, a former chairman of the American Concrete Pavement Association, previously appeared before the Transportation Committee in July at a hearing on the stimulus bill. During the 2010 cycle, Duit also donated to one of Lankford’s primary challengers, Michael Ray Thompson, as well as then-Transportation Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
Another witness, Jerry Hietpas, president of Oklahoma-based Action Safety Supply Co., made two donations to Lankford in 2010 totaling $2,500.
Hietpas also donated $2,400 to Thompson in 2009, and two other individuals who list Action Safety Supply as their employer likewise donated to Thompson in 2009.
Neal McCaleb, president of the Oklahoma advocacy group Transportation Revenues Used Strictly for Transportation, also testified at the hearing. McCaleb donated $500 to Lankford’s campaign in 2010.
Federal Election Commission records show McCaleb regularly donates to campaigns and made identical donations to Thompson and Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) in the 2010 cycle.
McCaleb, who spoke at the Indian Reservation Roads program, is also a former Oklahoma transportation secretary and former director of the state’s transportation department. He served as the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Indian affairs in the Bush administration.
A fourth witness, Larry Lemon, chairman of Oklahoma-based Haskell Lemon Construction, did not donate to Lankford, but campaign finance records show Lankford received a total of $1,500 in contributions from three Haskell Lemon Construction officials in September.
FEC records show Lemon, who served as chairman of the National Asphalt Pavement Association in 2010, donated $500 to Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), $250 to Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) and $850 to Thompson in the last cycle.
Lankford is not the only Transportation Committee member to have attended a field hearing where a witness also made a contribution to his campaign.
Ohio Reps. Bob Gibbs (R) and Jean Schmidt (R) serve on the committee and attended a February field hearing in Columbus, Ohio. Each received donations from Brian Burgett, CEO of the Kokosing Construction Co., who testified at that hearing. Schmidt received $3,000 and Gibbs received at least $2,400 in the 2010 cycle.
Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), who represents the Columbus area but does not serve on the Transportation panel, attended the hearing. Stivers also received $3,000 from Burgett and an additional $4,250 from Kokosing Construction employees in the 2010 cycle.
Campaign Legal Center Policy Director Meredith McGehee said there is no reason to automatically exclude campaign donors from appearing as witnesses before Congress, but she suggested Members should disclose such relationships.
“From a common-sense perspective, you would hope that, as a minimum, that Members who received campaign contributions would want to put that on the record from the get-go,” McGehee said, although there is no requirement that lawmakers do so.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.