The felony charges filed Thursday against State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister stunned many Oklahomans.
Allegations that she and four others conspired to get around campaign finance laws belied Hofmeister’s image as an earnest, hard-working, politically careful champion of public education and educators. Hofmeister denied any wrongdoing and said she will fight the charges.
To comprehend the news, many people also had to grasp the complex regulations related to campaign finance – a world of increasing, big-money machinations that picked up after U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 2010.
Here are some answers to questions about the case.
Q: What exactly are Hofmeister and four others accused of doing?
A: Hofmeister faces two felony counts on her own: one for knowingly accepting campaign contributions that exceeded the maximum amounts set by law for a candidate, and the other for accepting contributions from a corporation, which is illegal. The company in question was the American Fidelity Assurance Co., which was not charged with any wrongdoing. Although Hofmeister and her campaign did not directly receive the donations, prosecutors allege she illegally coordinated with a newly formed nonprofit advocacy group, Oklahomans for Public School Excellence, to help her candidacy. This, in effect, caused her campaign to exceed the maximum single-donor contribution limit. Hofmeister and four others also are charged with conspiracy and computer-crime charges stemming from their alleged collaboration – and the use of emails and texts in the process – to exceed the maximum donation limits and accept direct corporate contributions.
Prosecutors say the crimes occurred between April 2013 and November 2014. The other people facing charges: Robert Fount Holland, co-founder of political consulting group A.H. Strategies, which managed Hofmeister’s campaign; Stephanie Milligan, who ran day-to-day operations of Oklahomans for Public School Excellence; Steven Crawford, executive director of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administrators, and Lela Odom, then-director of the Oklahoma Education Association.
Essentially, the prosecutors allege, the campaign and the advocacy nonprofit were coordinating and thus were acting as two branches of the same official campaign. That coordination allowed three donors – American Fidelity ($100,000), the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma Public School Administrators ($100,000) and the Oklahoma Education Association ($100,000) – to give well beyond the $5,000-per-donor limit that campaign committees are limited to.
Q: Why is coordination illegal?
A: Coordination became an issue after 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that political spending was protected by the First Amendment, That meant corporations and labor unions could spend unlimited sums on political activity if there was no coordination with candidates or their campaigns. Corporations included nonprofit corporations. The ruling spurred a rapid growth of “social welfare” nonprofits, or 501(c)(4) groups, such as Oklahomans for Public School Excellence. The groups could receive unlimited donations without disclosing donors – the reason they’re called “dark money” groups – and spend the money to advocate for or against candidates. No more than 49.9 percent of their resources can be spent on political activity.
Q: Are criminal charges alleging coordination filed often?
A: Very rarely. It is difficult for investigators to prove coordination, thanks in part to how little transparency there is with the groups and because there is a narrowly tailored definition of “coordination.” Most of the criminal cases filed came about when investigators working on separate cases stumbled on documents indicating coordination.
Q: How did this investigation get started?
A: It began in 2014 after two things occurred. In May that year, political consultant Chad Alexander was arrested for cocaine possession and his cellphone and computer were searched. Investigators found text messages suggesting coordination in Hofmeister’s campaign. The second event occurred as part of the primary race that year. Incumbent Superintendent Janet Barresi obtained emails from Jenks Public Schools, where Hofmeister had served on the district’s foundation board, using an Open Records Act request. One email from Hofmeister sent in April 2013 to the Jenks superintendent stated, “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.” That suggested she was involved in discussions to set up an independent expenditure group. Hofmeister said despite the message, she only talked to Alexander about running her campaign, not an independent expenditure group. Barresi turned that email and others over to Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater alleging illegal coordination.
Read Oklahoma Watch’s 2014 investigative story on the dark-money group central to the case:
Q: What did investigators say they found to warrant charges?
A: The affidavit filed by Prater’s chief investigator, Gary Eastridge, quoted and paraphrased numerous text messages and emails. Authorities also interviewed witnesses and checked bank records. In short, the emails and other evidence showed the defendants illegally coordinated to obtain donations that were funneled to Oklahomans for Public School Excellence to buy attack ads against Barresi, the affidavit states.
The affidavit cites a number of messages from or to Hofmeister as evidence of coordination with the nonprofit. One thing that drew attention was messages between her and Ryan Owens, general counsel of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma Public School Administrators. “Owens was instrumental in Hofmeister’s campaign assisting with strategy, guidance and speech writing,” as well as in the formation of the nonprofit, the affidavit says. He was the registered agent for the group until he was hastily replaced out of fear that his position would mean a violation of the ban against coordination, the messages indicate. After getting A “frantic phone call” from Oklahoma Secretary of Education Phyllis Hudecki, Owens emailed Alexander and Milligan in early May 2014 saying, “Please respond ASAP – Joy and crew are freaking out!”
Owens is not charged in the case, but is listed as a witness.
Q: Have authorities investigated other groups like this in Oklahoma?
A: They have. At the same time the dark money group backing Hofmeister was being investigated, a separate criminal investigation was underway involving a group backing former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Shannon’s candidate campaign involved almost all of the same political consultants involved in Hofmeister’s campaign, while the dark money group backing Shannon, Oklahomans for a Conservative Future, was being operated by Alexander, Milligan and others. When Alexander was arrested, the messages in his cell phone prompted an investigation of that group as well. Authorities alleged that individuals from Shannon’s campaign and Oklahomans for a Conservative Future were approaching potential donors and demanding they donate to both groups, a possible sign of fundraising coordination. In addition, an Oklahoma Watch investigation found that some of the individuals controlling Oklahomans for a Conservative Future were also sponsoring fundraisers for Shannon’s campaign.
Q: What happens if Hofmeister is convicted of the felony charges?
A: State law requires that if a state elected official is found guilty of a felony while serving their elected term, they must be suspended from office immediately. The governor would then appoint a successor to fill the remainder of the elected official’s term. Hofmeister retained her own legal counsel to represent her because the allegations precede her time in office. Her attorney is Gary Wood of Oklahoma City.
In Affidavit, Response to Oklahoma Watch Inquiries
When Oklahoma Watch reporter Clifton Adcock first inquired about the dark-money group supporting Hofmeister in July 2014, he sent questions to Hofmeister’s campaign spokeswoman Ellen Dollarhide. The email asked whether Hofmeister had met jointly with Chad Alexander and Fount Holland to discuss campaign strategy and whether the formation of a independent expenditure group was discussed at any of those meetings. Hofmeister said neither took place.
In a follow-up email included in the prosecutor’s affidavit, Adcock asked whether Hofmeister knew about Oklahomans for Public School Excellence, who was funding the group, who was running it and who helped organize it; whether anyone from the Cooperative Council for Public School Administrators ever approached and discussed Oklahomans for Public School Excellence with Hofmeister’s campaign, and whether Hofmeister or her campaign had ever discussed the group, independent expenditures or campaign strategy with consultant Milligan, who was running the nonprofit.
According to the criminal affidavit, several emails between Hofmeister, Holland and other A.H.Strategies co-founder Trebor Worthen debated how to answer these questions. The response sent to Adcock stated, “The answer to your questions is no.”
However, the affidavit states: “The evidence shows this was not truthful. The evidence shows that the campaign coordinated with the independent expenditure/electioneering communication resulting in the expenditures being in-kind contributions from corporations and in excess of campaign donation limits.”