Oklahoma flags are seen waving in the wind outside of the State Capitol. Credit: Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch
State House members meet during the 2018 session. Legislators who have made the largest donations of campaign funds to other candidates are from the House. Credit: Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

State Rep. Charles McCall holds a unique sway in the Oklahoma House.

As House speaker, he has the ability to name committee heads, direct how and when bills are heard and largely dictate the agenda of the Republican-led chamber.

But McCall’s influence isn’t limited to just the legislative process. He is also among the top donors to candidates running for election or re-election in the Legislature.

In addition to donating $4,000 of his personal funds to support several candidates, McCall, of Atoka, has also used his campaign funds to contribute $132,700 to nearly 70 Republican candidates since early 2016.

McCall’s isn’t alone. An Oklahoma Watch review of contributions found that sitting lawmakers and legislative candidates’ campaigns have given more than $746,000 to other legislative candidates since Jan. 1, 2016. About 75 percent of the money came from about a dozen Republican and Democratic legislators, almost all of whom hold or have held leadership positions. McCall’s contributions represented about 20 percent of what he took in during the same period.

The sharing of contributions means these lawmakers act as de facto “super donors,” or at least bundlers, who dole out thousands of dollars to candidates running in a wide range of races.

The candidate-to-candidate contributions are legal in Oklahoma, as they are in many other states and in federal campaigns, but donations can’t exceed the state’s $2,700-per-race limit.

The large amounts of circulating cash have raised concerns at the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, which is examining a possible rule change, still being drafted, that would block candidates from transferring campaign funds to other candidates.

Ethics Commission Vice Chairman Charlie Laster, who is sponsoring the proposal, said the worry is that by sharing their donations, these lawmakers will have undue influence over who will serve alongside them and how that official might vote on legislation.

“The influence of money was my biggest concerns when I was in office,” said Laster, who was a Democratic state senator from 2002 to 2012. “I think the general public would have concern that their representative was voting on legislation by following legislative leaders (who donated to them) rather than following what their district would want them to do.”

But some lawmakers say it is farfetched to suggest that candidate-to-candidate contributions would compromise a legislator’s integrity.

“If you can buy a vote for $2,000, then we need better members,” said Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City. “That is just playing on our worst fears.”

Biggest Donors

House Speaker Charles McCall, on the opening day of the 2018 legislative session.

There are several reasons why top legislative leaders typically make the largest transfers of campaign cash.

McCall’s $132,700 in contributions from his campaign to other campaigns since 2016 is the most from any candidate.

Rep. Chris Kannady

After McCall, the biggest donors were other Republicans: Assistant Majority Floor Leader Chris Kannady, Oklahoma City, $97,150; Majority Whip Terry O’Donnell, Catoosa, $64,900; Appropriations and Budget Chairman Kevin Wallace, Wellston, $56,800; Speaker Pro Tempore Harold Wright, Weatherford, $45,950; Assistant Majority Whip Tim Downing, Purcell, $37,300, and Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, Oklahoma City, $36,300.

Rep. Eric Proctor, D-Tulsa, who is term-limited from running again, was the only Democrat who made the top 10 in candidate-to-candidate donors. He gave $23,521 to other candidates.

House lawmakers tended to be more frequent contributors than senators largely because there are more competitive House races than Senate races each election cycle.

Many of these candidates have been able to build up substantial campaign war chests over the years because they haven’t faced recent competitive re-election campaigns. Kannady, for example, beat his Democratic opponent by at least 45 percentage points during the 2016 and 2014 races. McCall ran unopposed in both of those elections.

The transfers haven’t stopped donors, including many active political action committees, from giving to many of these influential legislators.

Ethic Commission rules allow candidates to use surplus campaign funds in a number of ways. In addition to supporting other candidates, lawmakers can hold on to the money for a potential future race, donate it to a charity or nonprofit or give it to a political party committee. They also can use the money for “officeholder expenses or reimbursing donors or send it to state’s general fund.

Rep. Jon Echols

But Echols said it’s expected that members of leadership from both parties will send at least some of their campaign money to fellow candidates who are in close races. His donors understand those obligations, he said.

“I tell my donors, ‘Hey, I’m floor leader and it is expected of me as floor leader to be supportive of members who need money,’” Echols said. “That is the expectation, and they will say, ‘Awesome, go do it.’”

Echols added that he would prefer the Ethics Commission look at more sweeping campaign reforms, such as implementing real-time reporting of contributions, if it wanted to tackle the influence of money in state politics. But he wouldn’t necessarily oppose a rule blocking the candidate-to-candidate donations.

In a written statement, McCall said he, too, uses his campaign money to support other candidates because the rules clearly say it’s allowable.

“I wasn’t consulted about the rule before it was put in place,” he said. “If they want to change the rules, that is certainly their discretion.”

Picking Winners and Losers

Of the more than $746,000 that has been transferred between candidates since early 2016, Republicans gave 88 percent of it.

Campaign finance records show much of the money targeted races over the past two years in which Republicans narrowly won. Those included the 2017 special election for Rep. Zack Taylor, R-Seminole, who won by a mere 56 votes.

Eleven Republican House members, including McCall and other GOP leaders, transferred a total of $10,950 to Taylor for the special election. The amount represented more than 10 percent of his total campaign spending and almost a third of what his challenger spent.

GOP lawmakers have also used the candidate-to-candidate transfers to oust anti-tax members of their own party.

A story by The Associated Press reported that Kannady led the charge to oust these incumbents by using his campaign funds to back their challengers.

The contributions included $2,000 to Stan May, who upset Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow; $1,000 to Sheila Dills, who beat Rep. Chuck Strohm, R-Jenks; and $500 to Jeff Boatman, who defeated Rep. Scott McEachin, R-Tulsa.

Other candidate-to-candidate transfers that helped defeat incumbents this year were a $1,000 contribution from Wallace to Dills and a $2,700 contribution from Sen. Jack Fry, R-Midwest City, to Robert Manger, who defeated Rep. Tess Teague, R-Choctaw.

Buying Influence?

State Auditor Gary Jones, who requested the Ethics Commission examine candidate-to-candidate transfers earlier this year, said he doesn’t object to lawmakers’ using their personal funds to back other candidates. But he said their ability to unilaterally decide whom to support with their own donors’ money creates an uneven playing field. The lawmakers basically function like political action committees, he said.

“It can add up and amount to a good amount of their campaign funds, especially in some of the smaller races,” Jones said. “So to preserve the integrity of the system, I think they should just eliminate those.”

Laster said the review of current rules could also close a loophole that, in theory, allows donors to launder funds to exceed the $2,700-per-race cap.

Laster said a hypothetical individual donor could make the $2,700 donation to Candidate A and then make a $2,700 gift to Candidate B with a “wink and nod” agreement that Candidate B will transfer the money to Candidate A.

“I think we really need to make sure there is transparency and there is not a scheme to somehow exceed the legal limit,” he said. “I still don’t know how we can go about controlling that, but that is a big concern of mine.”

Reach reporter Trevor Brown at tbrown@oklahomawatch.org or (630) 301-0589.

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