By Alex Cameron, 9 Investigates
OKLAHOMA CITY -- State employees are getting paid for hours they're not working, and their bosses don't see that as a problem.
That was the allegation made by a fed-up worker at the state Capitol about a particular group of employees in the Senate. The person says these employees -- who make about $45,000 a year, plus benefits -- take advantage of the system, because they can.
"Probably 20 to 30 percent do it regularly, on an almost daily basis," said the worker, who wants to remain unnamed.
Each Senator has a full-time executive assistant -- E.A., for short -- and the frustrated worker says many of them take advantage of lax oversight, and consistently come to work late, leave early, or both.
"It is abuse, plain and simple," the worker said. "It's not running late a day or getting caught in traffic, it is consistent, flagrant abuse."
The 9 Investigates team decided to take a closer look.
From last August through December, 9 Investigates made more than 40 random visits to the Capitol to see if EA's were working 8:30 to 4:30, as the job requires. We checked senators' offices and the Capitol park lot. Based on these observations, we determined that a quarter of the Senate EA's were arriving anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half late, and/or leaving work 30 minutes to an hour and a half early, at least 20 percent of the times we checked.
A review of payroll documentation available on the web site www.openbooks.gov reveals these workers received full pay throughout this period.
"This type of behavior would not be tolerated outside of that building," the worker insisted, saying it's tolerated there "because the senators don't seem to feel it is their job to manage."
9 Investigates emailed a letter to each senator, explaining the results of our investigation, and requesting answers to a few basic questions. Of 48 senators, just four responded at all to the email, and only two actually answered any questions.
One of those, Senator Roger Ballenger, D-Okmulgee, stated that EA attendance is an issue that concerns him. And, he says, he does review his EA's time card for accuracy before signing it.
Ballenger appears to be the exception.
The leader of the Senate, President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, sent this statement: "The Oklahoma state Senate has 107 of the hardest working employees around. They work day and night, in and out of the state Capitol, to serve constituents and address the major issues facing Oklahoma."
Since the statement didn't address any of the specifics raised in the email, 9 Investigates made multiple requests, through Sen. Bingman's office, for an interview.
We made one final request, in person, on the opening day of the current legislative session.
"I've sent you a statement and that's the final word," explained Nathan Atkins, Mr. Bingman's press secretary, standing out in the Capitol rotunda.
Moments later, Sen. Bingman walked by us, providing an opportunity to, at least, try to speak with him informally.
"Senator Bingman, Alex Cameron..."
The Pro Tem stopped and listened to a brief explanation of what we found, after indicating this was the first he had heard of our review of EA attendance.
We told him that, we were especially curious to know if his decision to install electronic card readers outside Senate offices a month ago was an acknowledgement of an attendance problem.
"That's something we've been working on for the last couple of years," Bingman stated, "just for accountability."
In light of his goal of improved accountability, we wanted to know how concerned he was by our findings and whether he felt taxpayers should be concerned.
Mr. Bingman seemed to search momentarily for the right words, and then fell back on his prepared statement:
"Again, we have good, hard-working employees..."
Executive assistants are salaried employees, but the senate employee handbook makes clear they are supposed to work from 8:30 to 4:30, and turn in accurate time cards.
To be fair, we requested the EA's time cards, since they could potentially show that our findings were misleading. That is, these workers' time cards could show that they were properly accounting for the times when we counted them absent, by using annual leave or sick leave.
However, since the Legislature has exempted itself from the Open Records Act, they don't have to release time cards, and they did not.
Some defend the EA's and criticize our finding that many work less than full-time when the Legislature is not in session, saying they work extra hours when the Legislature is in session, and don't get any additional pay then. 9 Investigates reviewed logs from last session and found that, out of 59 legislative days, the Senate worked past 4:30 12 times. The latest they worked, according to the logs, was 6:40 p.m.
"Many have spoken out, many are frustrated," said the unnamed Capitol worker, [and] "many would like to see a change."
HOW WE DID IT: Nine Investigates visited the Capitol more than 40 times from August to December. We counted the number of Senate executive assistants who weren't at work, using dark, locked offices or empty parking spaces where they typically parked. Numbers represent the number of EAs who weren't at work at the time we checked – typically around 9:30 in the morning or 3:30 in the afternoon, although we also visited other times. We averaged the number of absent EAs on days we visited twice.