Campaign donors called upon for expert testimony

Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), right, listens to Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) at last month's field hearing in Oklahoma City on transportation funding. Some of the business owners who testified were donors to Lankford's congressional campaign.
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), right, listens to Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) at last month's field hearing in Oklahoma City on transportation funding. Some of the business owners who testified were donors to Lankford's congressional campaign. (AP)

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Thursday, March 17, 2011; 10:20 AM

As he presided last month over his first field hearing in his home district, newly elected Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) praised the viewpoints of the business owners testifying before him.

"The best ideas come from individuals who see and breathe the issues not just from Washington," Lankford said at the hearing on transportation funding held in Oklahoma City, according to the online news service Tulsa Today. "We have plenty of highly skilled and capable officials and workers right here that know the best way forward."

He might have been familiar with a few of them before - they were also his campaign donors.

Two of the three construction company executives testifying had given Lankford checks of $2,400 or more. The third executive worked for a company whose employees were a source of campaign cash. Also testifying: the leader of an advocacy group who had given $500 to Lankford.

The contributors' presence at the hearing - first reported by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call - does not violate congressional rules, but watchdogs say it raises the question of whether expert panels are assembled based on their donations.

Lankford spokesman William Allison said that the witnesses were selected based on guidance from local industry leaders. "These gentlemen are nationally recognized leaders in their fields and were called as witnesses solely because of their expertise," Allison said.

James Duit, one of the contractors testifying, said he was asked to participate by Bobby Stem, the head of the Associated General Contractors of Oklahoma. Stem said that he selected the witnesses to get a mix of representation from different parts of the industry.

"The vast majority of our members are donors to these campaigns," Stem said. "It would be kind of hard to find some of our members who aren't donors to Lankford and others."

The Oklahoma hearing is not the only example of donors being asked to testify before members of Congress.

Brian Burgett, the chief executive of the Kokosing Construction Co., testified last month at a House Transportation Committee field hearing in Columbus, Ohio. Burgett had donated thousands of dollars to each of the campaigns of three of the lawmakers at the hearing, Ohio Republicans Jean Schmidt, Steve Stivers and Bob Gibbs.

Catherine Gatewood, a spokeswoman for Gibbs, said, "The panel was a group of professionals in transportation from across Ohio. Mr. Burgett's company, Kokosing, is a major employer in the region." Burgett did not return a call requesting comment.

Early this month, Rep. Renee L. Ellmers (R-N.C.) invited furniture maker and campaign supporter Jerol Kivett to testify on the burden of new health laws on his business. Kivett's wife, Telia, donated $2,000 to Ellmers's campaign, and the couple hosted a swearing-in ceremony for Ellmers at Washington's Hay-Adams hotel. Ellmers' s office had no comment. The Kivetts did not respond to a message seeking comment.


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