By Teddye Snell, Press Staff Writer
Friday, September 23, 2005 3:12 PM CDT
Against the recommendation of the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office and an attorney on its own board, the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission voted 7-4 Thursday evening to accept a supposedly "no strings attached" $1.1 million donation from the poultry industry.
Following a brief presentation by subcommittee Chairman Steve Randall, Commissioner Janice Rucker moved to accept the donation from the poultry consortium, which includes Peterson Farms Inc., Tyson Inc., Simmons Foods Inc., George's Inc., Cargill Turkey Production LLC and Willow Brook Foods International. The motion was seconded by Commissioner Bob Ed Culver.
Commissioner Gerald Hilsher, an attorney, expressed concern that the meeting agenda, as posted, violated the Open Meeting Act, and that voting to accept the donation could provide poultry companies in litigation with the Attorney General's Office an item of evidence for the defense. That could hurt the state's chances of prevailing in the lawsuit.
"The resolution items I'm concerned with specifically are numbered 5 and 6, where the OSRC commends and approves of the litter management plan outlined in the original letter from the poultry companies," said Hilsher. "It could put the OSRC in the role of antagonist against the state, or give the appearance we're giving our blessing or partnering with the poultry industry."
Item 5 in the original resolution commended the companies, on their "goals of providing the capacity and means for accepting and providing utilization for poultry litter voluntarily committed to the program by poultry growers within the [Illinois River] Watershed."
Item 6 further commended the consortium on its commitment of up to an estimated $5.5 million in funding for the litter reduction program for the watershed.
According to the meeting agenda, these items were not listed specifically for approval, which was the source of Hilsher's concern.
Hilsher had requested that the original $1.1 million donation for erosion control, adding restroom facilities along the Illinois River, and promotion and implementation of sound water practices, be accepted under the alternative resolution.
To clarify the commission's standing in the state's litigation, the revised resolution states:
"The OSRC's acceptance of these proferred gifts is made expressly without any acknowledgement or acquiescence of the suggested reasons behind the gifts or other explanations offered by the donors. It is the OSRC's express intention that acceptance of the gifts shall not be used as evidence of the appropriateness or lack of appropriateness of the donor's rationale, the monetary amount of the gift, or the amount of litter that donor's agree to voluntarily remove from the watershed, it being understood that there is ongoing litigation between these donors and the state of Oklahoma."
Culver then called for the question.
Assistant Oklahoma Attorney General Ellen Phillips, who was also at the meeting, addressed the state's concerns about OSRC's acceptance of the gift with the original resolution.
"We're reiterating what Commissioner Hilsher has already said," said Phillips. "The attorney general's office has no problem with accepting a donation with no ties attached. I am concerned it has ties, particularly since a private attorney representing one of the entities in the state's case has contacted members of the OSRC. The problem lies in the point of focus of the resolution, which includes a voluntary litter reduction plan by the industry. The OSRC is a state agency. If a state agency condones, ratifies or approves any plan by the poultry industry with regard to litter reduction, it is in direct conflict with the state's case, and as a state agency, the OSRC should take that under advisement."
Phllips said if the revised resolution were approved, it would eliminate the problem. However, if the commissioners approved the original resolution, including the litter management plan, "it would be prejudicial to the state's case."
Scott McDaniel, an attorney for one of the poultry companies, explained the spirit of the donation.
"I think a clarification should be provided with regard to the rewriting of the original resolution," said McDaniel. "The members of the [poultry] industry received a request from this commission for assistance. These companies have been attacked in the media due to an agenda that has little to do with water quality. You people are trying to start a trend [by soliciting funding]. We're trying to be the spearhead for that trend, and I can tell you, it's getting pretty bloody."
McDaniel said his clients were not prepared to go ahead with the donation if it was not accepted under the original resolution, including the litter management plan.
The commission then approved the original resolution, 7-4.
Commissioner Jeannine Hale, who was appointed by the Senate president pro-tem, has resigned her post as commissioner and did not attend the meeting.