(Update: The Stitt campaign said June 8 it has paused the airing of the campaign ad “in light of a recent inquiry.”)
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said he is taking seriously a letter sent to him by a bipartisan group of lawmakers expressing concern with a campaign advertisement by Gov. Kevin Stitt featuring his appointed attorney general, John O’Connor.
Eight Republican and Democratic House members wrote to Prater asking him to investigate a 30-second ad the Stitt campaign began running last week. The campaign has booked more than $300,000 of airtime in Oklahoma City and Tulsa television markets this month.
The state Republican Party’s new chairman, A.J. Ferate, said he fired the party’s general counsel for criticizing the ad.
Oklahoma Watch wrote about the ad in a story published Monday. The primary election is June 28. O’Connor faces Gentner Drummond, a Tulsa attorney and banker, in the Republican primary for attorney general. Stitt has three opponents in the GOP primary for governor.
In their letter, the lawmakers said they had concerns that the ad “spends a substantial amount of time promoting John O’Connor, who is himself a candidate for statewide office.”
“The intent is clear: with his hand-picked Attorney General lagging in the polls, Governor Stitt is spending his own campaign funds to help,” the lawmakers wrote.
Signing the letter were Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond; Rep. Tammy West, R-Oklahoma City; Rep. Josh West, R-Grove; Rep. Nicole Miller, R-Edmond; Rep. Collin Walke, D-Oklahoma City; Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City; Rep. Merelyn Bell, D-Norman; and Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City.
Prater said he has reviewed the allegations made by the lawmakers.
“I consider this a serious matter,” Prater said in a statement. “I will respect the lawmakers’ request and investigate to determine if evidence exists to prove a violation of Oklahoma criminal statutes.”
The new chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party said he removed the party’s general counsel, Rex Duncan, for not honoring a request to take down tweets published over the weekend critical of the Stitt ad. A.J. Ferate also chastised Duncan for speaking to Oklahoma Watch.
Duncan told Ferate he was not speaking in any official capacity on behalf of the state party and said he couldn’t be directed or ordered to delete his social media posts.
Ferate declined to comment on the ad, saying as party chair he tries to not comment on primary campaigns. The state party’s deputy general counsel, Sarah Clutts, said her legal analysis of the ad finds it doesn’t meet all four requirements spelled out in Ethics Commission rules to trigger the prohibitions on electioneering for another candidate.
“It has to meet each and every one of those requirements in order to be considered an electioneering communication,” Clutts said. “And it just simply doesn’t.”
Clutts said the Stitt ad doesn’t explicitly endorse O’Connor or identify the attorney general as a candidate for election. She also said it doesn’t target the statewide electorate in the attorney general’s race, only the statewide electorate in the governor’s race. However, Clutts said the ad does meet the requirement that the communication be made within 30 days of a primary or runoff election.
“It doesn’t even mention, let alone, endorse John O’Connor’s running for anything,” she said. “I think the voters are aware of that, but it’s really a communication about Governor Stitt and what he considers to be his accomplishments.”
Clutts said her analysis also shows the ad would not meet the threshold of an in-kind donation from one campaign to another because there’s no record that O’Connor has accepted a donation for the ad.
“We don’t have any knowledge whatsoever as the OKGOP that any contributions were made by Gov. Stitt or anybody on his behalf, or any acceptance by John O’Connor or anybody on his behalf or his committee,” Clutts said.
The letter from a small group of lawmakers criticizing the Stitt ad comes amid a fraught relationship between the GOP-controlled Legislature and Stitt. In the last days of the regular session, the Legislature overrode a Stitt veto of Senate Bill 1695, which requires Cabinet appointees and agency directors to file financial disclosure statements.
Ethics Commission rules on electioneering
“Electioneering communication” means any communication or series of communications that is sent by Internet advertising, direct mail, broadcast by radio, television, cable or satellite, or appears in a newspaper or magazine that (a) refers to a clearly identified candidate for state office, (b) is made within sixty (60) days before a general election (including a special general election) or thirty (30) days before a primary or runoff primary election (including a special primary or runoff primary election) for the office sought by the candidate, (c) that is targeted to the relevant electorate and (d) does not explicitly advocate the election or defeat of any candidate. “Relevant electorate” shall mean twenty-five thousand (25,000) or more persons in the State of Oklahoma in the case of a candidate for statewide elective office, two thousand five hundred (2,500) or more persons in the district the candidate seeks to represent in the case of a candidate for the Oklahoma State House of Representatives or judge of the District Court, and five thousand (5,000) or more persons in the district the candidate seeks to represent in the case of all other elective state offices.”
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.