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Information Scarce On ‘Dark Money’ Group In Superintendent Campaign

Brian Hardzinski

An independent expenditure group that paid for television advertisements opposing State Superintendent Janet Barresi in last month’s primary has not filed required spending reports with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.

The nonprofit Oklahomans for Public School Excellence, created in May, failed to file the paperwork before the June 24 election as required by state ethics rules. Groups that spend more than $5,000 in political advertising during a campaign must file pre-election reports, and violations can result in civil penalties of more than $50,000, said Lee Slater, director of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.

If the group accepted donations from others to buy the ads, it must also disclose all of its donors. No report of that kind has been filed.

Little public information is otherwise available about the so-called “dark money” political group, which opposed Barresi in her race against Joy Hofmeister, a former State Board of Education member. Hofmeister won and will face the winner of a Democratic runoff on Aug. 26 — Freda Deskin or John Cox.

But Oklahoma Watch determined through other records and interviews that the consultant running Oklahomans for Public School Excellence, Stephanie Milligan, is vice president of a political consulting group run by well-known lobbyist and political consultant Chad Alexander.

Alexander had met with Hofmeister in April 2013 to discuss her fledgling campaign, and that meeting, revealed in an email from Hofmeister and made public earlier this year, led to charges by Barresi’s campaign that Hofmeister was violating campaign laws.

In her email, Hofmeister said she regarded Alexander as someone who was “probably (a) better fit for the independent campaign.” State law prohibits a candidate from coordinating with an independent expenditure group, called “dark money” groups because they often do not have to disclose their donors and can spend unlimited amounts on campaigns. Barresi’s campaign, which had obtained the Hofmeister email earlier this year, submitted it and other emails to Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater’s office alleging violations.

Ellen Dollarhide, a spokeswoman for Hofmeister’s campaign, told Oklahoma Watch in an email that Hofmeister did not discuss creation of an independent group when she met with Alexander in 2013.

"The only single time that Joy Hofmeister has been in a meeting or had a conversation with Chad Alexander was after he had been recommended as an available consultant for her to consider, which was even before she had decided to run for office,” Dollarhide said. “Mrs. Hofmeister interviewed him, but went a different direction. "

Dollarhide also said Hofmeister did not have discussions with Stephanie Milligan or anyone else about the independent group or about making independent expenditures that would benefit her campaign.

Milligan did not respond to calls or messages left at her office, which is in the same location in downtown Oklahoma City as Alexander’s office and the office of Gov. Mary Fallin’s campaign. (Those offices were burglarized in mid-June by an intruder who police said spent all night searching papers and computers and took a Fallin-office laptop, but authorities have not publicly linked the burglary to political activity.)

Prater has said he is trying to determine whether the Barresi campaign’s allegations have any merit.

Alexander made news in May when he was arrested in Oklahoma City on felony complaints of possession of cocaine and prescription pain pills; he was later also charged with obstructing an officer. He went to a rehabilitation center in Texas and left in mid-June. Alexander has led several independent expenditure groups, including one supporting T.W. Shannon in the U.S. Senate primary this year and another supporting several candidates in 2012 state races.

Election records show Milligan worked under Alexander at those independent expenditure groups. On LinkedIn, she lists her job title as vice president of Alexander Companies, and police records from the burglary in mid-June show her as working for Alexander.

Independent Group Forms

Secretary of State records show Oklahomans for Public School Excellence was incorporated as a nonprofit organization on May 2. The group began spending money on political television ads in June, according to Federal Communications Commission records.

The group was organized in part by a nonprofit public-school administrators’ organization, the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, according to state filings and interviews. In recent years, between about a fourth and nearly half of the council’s funding came from membership dues paid by school administrators, tax returns show.

How Oklahomans for Public School Excellence was funded remains unclear. The Ethics Commission has no reports from the group about its spending or donors. Officials with the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration refused to say whether their nonprofit raised or provided funds to Oklahomans for Public School Excellence.

According to records that television stations must keep when political ads are purchased, the business address for Oklahomans for Public School Excellence is the Moore home address of Milligan, vice president of Alexander Consulting.

Steven Crawford, executive director of the Cooperative Council, and Ryan Owens, its general counsel, said Milligan handled most of Oklahomans for Public School Excellence’s operations.

Campaign Moves

The organization spent more than $195,000 on political ads before the primary election, records show. The ads were mostly negative ones targeting Barresi, who was opposed by many school superintendents unhappy with her policies. Several superintendents recruited Hofmeister to run against Barresi.

During the race, the Barresi campaign obtained emails from Jenks Public Schools regarding Hofmeister, whose children have attended Jenks schools and who is a member of the Jenks Public Schools Foundation. Among the emails were ones exchanged between Hofmeister and public school administrators. Barresi provided those to Prater’s office, alleging that Hofmeister’s campaign had violated state law by improperly coordinating with the independent expenditure group attacking Barresi. Barresi’s campaign also alleged that superintendents were using school computers and staff to campaign for Hofmeister. Superintendents have denied this.

Under state law, “dark money” groups are not allowed to coordinate with candidates or candidates’ campaigns. Improper coordination, however, has been defined narrowly under federal election law to involve specific coordination of advertising, such as ad content, timing and media.

In an email that Hofmeister sent on April 22, 2013, to Jenks Public Schools Superintendent Kirby Lehmann, she stated that she planned to meet with the co-founder of the Oklahoma City-based political consulting firm A.H. Strategies, as well as Chad Alexander. Alexander had left A.H. Strategies in 2012 to head an independent expenditure group involved in state elections that year.

“Just wanted to update you,” Hofmeister wrote. “I am meeting this morning in OKC with Fount Holland (AH Strategies) at 11 a.m., and Chad Alexander (probably better fit for the independent campaign) at 1 p.m.”

Crawford, executive director of the Cooperative Council, said his group never talked with Hofmeister’s campaign about forming Oklahomans for Public Education Excellence.

“Absolutely not, absolutely never,” Crawford said. “There’s no connection between us and that at all.”

Crawford said for years he had wanted a group to exist to advocate on behalf of public education.

“It’s been a goal of ours, because public education, public schools, cannot advertise to be the voice for public schools on pro-public education issues,” Crawford said.

The Cooperative Council was involved in conversations that led to the formation of Oklahomans for Public Education Excellence, Crawford said, although he would not disclose who else was part of the conversations.

“We are part of the group. It’s a pro-public education group and that’s been our mission,” Crawford said. “The day-to-day operations of the (nonprofit group), I have nothing to do with.”

Clifton Adcock can be reached at cadcock@oklahomawatch.org Follow @cliftonhowze

Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.
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