One of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s first acts as governor was a moratorium on executive agencies using contract lobbyists, a nod to the 2018 gubernatorial campaign he ran as a political outsider.
Eighteen months later, amid a global pandemic, Stitt’s office signed a lobbying contract with Washington, D.C.-based Capitol Ventures Government Relations LLC. The governor’s office paid the firm a total of $14,000 in May and June from money that came from the state’s share of federal CARES Act spending, according to state financial records.
Stitt’s executive order in January 2019 directed state agencies to review their contracts with lobbyists and put a moratorium on new contracts unless they were approved by a cabinet secretary.
At the time, Stitt said agencies and their contract lobbyists were contributing to higher state spending. Some lobbyists criticized the plan, saying agencies would be forced instead to hire full-time employees and pay state benefits to “agency liaisons,” who functioned like lobbyists but weren’t subject to the same restrictions.
“It’s frightening to think that one of our state agencies would hire a third-party lobbyist who then turns around and lobbies these gentlemen behind me on make-sense legislation and things that move our state forward,” Stitt said at a January 2019 press conference attended by several lawmakers. “Oklahomans do not want our state agencies spending money to protect their own interests.”
In July 2019, Stitt signed an executive order extending the restriction on agencies hiring contract lobbyists.
Baylee Lakey, Stitt’s communications director, said Capitol Ventures was retained after the CARES Act was signed and Oklahoma was preparing to receive $1.2 billion from the federal government. The firm’s contract ended Aug. 30.
“The purpose of this contract was to ensure the state was well-informed and able to track regular changes in federal guidance and compliance on the use of these funds and was communicating regularly with the Oklahoma congressional delegation as our distribution process was being established,” Lakey said in a statement. “Capitol Ventures did not act in a traditional lobbying/advocacy capacity in this work; its primary purpose was in helping us clarify the existing guidance from Congress.”
The Governor’s Solutions Task Force for the coronavirus response has included at least one congressional aide since its formation in March. Stitt’s office also sent letters to the state’s congressional delegation in May thanking the lawmakers for the CARES Act aid and providing an outline of plans for the money.
Capitol Ventures is run by Stuart McCalman, who has lobbied Congress on behalf of several Oklahoma cities, tribes and companies. McCalman is a former staffer for Sen. James Inhofe, R-Tulsa. His former partner in the lobbying firm is Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum.
McCalman did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Jim Dunlap, chairman of the Oklahoma Society of Professional Advocates, said it made sense the governor would seek additional advice on federal spending. The society was formed last year to promote governmental advocacy.
“It shows the value of outside consultants,” Dunlap said. “If the governor sees it fit to do it in D.C., we understand why. We offer a product to government services and the private sector that we feel is value-added. I think the governor sees that in this D.C. firm that he doesn’t have somebody on staff and pay benefits on when he can hire an outside consultant.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to make clear the governor’s office paid Capitol Ventures Government Relations LLC a total of $14,000 in May and June.
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.