When one Oklahoma candidate tried to sue an out-of-state dark money group that sent mailers accusing him of abusing animals and women before the 2022 Republican primary, he couldn’t even find a good address to serve the court papers.
JJ Stit, who lost the 2022 Republican primary in Senate District 26, just west of Oklahoma City, said he also filed formal complaints with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission against the group. As of yet, the group has not faced any publicly revealed fines or penalties. But the Ethics Commission doesn’t make enforcement actions public unless they vote to release details or take legal action.
The phantom group, Common Sense Conservatives LLC, resurfaced in the special election for state Senate District 32 near Lawton, this fall, where it spent money on a direct mail advertisement against conservative Baptist minister Dusty Deevers in the Republican primary.
Records uncovered by The Frontier show that Common Sense Conservatives LLC is one small piece of a larger, nationwide dark money network that conducts most of its operations out of Ohio, has been involved in numerous federal and state-level campaigns in other states including Oklahoma, and has ties to at least one bogus charity. Outside groups that keep their donors secret have a growing influence on Oklahoma elections. Despite some calls for reform, state lawmakers have yet to take any meaningful action.
Common Sense Conservatives was one of several outside groups that spent at least $227,667 leading up to the Oct. 10 Senate District 32 primary, slightly less than the combined $233,527 that all four candidates in the race spent themselves. And though some of those groups reveal who is funding them, most do not.
In 2020, the Oklahoma Legislature passed a law making it more difficult for voters to see who is behind dark money groups.
This year, Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, requested an interim study on the flood of seemingly unlimited amounts of anonymous money in Oklahoma’s elections. House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, denied the request, but Humphrey said he hopes to bring the matter up again in the future.
“I think Oklahoma kind of sits around and thinks ‘this is on a national level, on the East Coast or West Coast, that’s in Georgia, that’s in Arizona, it’s not here,’” Humphrey said. “We have people saying our elections are great here and there’s no problems here. Bullshit. We’ve got all kinds of problems. We’ve got big problems. And we need to bring attention to it. We need to know where the money is coming from.”
Independent political organizations spent a record $45.3 million in races around the state during the 2022 election, according to a Frontier analysis of spending records. Nearly two-thirds of the organizations either did not reveal any information at all about donors or hid the true source of funds by passing the money through a tangle of political action committees and nonprofit organizations.
Deevers, who won the Senate District 23 primary and will face Democrat Larry Bush in the Dec. 12 general election, faced negative attacks by several dark money groups, including one that purchased a television ad during the OU-Texas football game. He also claimed he alerted law enforcement to threatening social media posts against him before the primary.
“If they are destroying my reputation, and thereby destroying some of my means and livelihood for my family and other people, I think that there needs to be some measure of protection,” Deevers said. “I mean, what do we have, if we don’t have a good reputation? Then it affects our family and our future for potentially generations to come.”
Americans United For Values, a federally-registered Super PAC funded by the national dark money group the American Exceptionalism Institute, also dumped money on negative ads against Deevers and other candidates in the primary.
The American Exceptionalism Institute was also at the center of a campaign finance scandal in Mississippi and was recently revealed by The Daily Beast to have been the recipient of the lion’s share of a $25,000 donation from QuikTrip co-founder and Tulsa resident Burt Holmes, who told the Daily Beast he was unaware that his donation to a separate group had been steered to a right wing dark money organization. The individual running the Oklahoma-registered Super PAC that Holmes donated to was later fraudulently listed as embattled New York Congressman George Santos’s campaign treasurer.
Both the American Exceptionalism Institute and Commonsense Conservatives are part of the nationwide dark money network based in Ohio.
The Senate District 32 primary was the first time since the 2022 primary election that Common Sense Conservatives LLC purchased an ad in an Oklahoma political race. Common Sense Conservatives sent out mailers to registered Republican voters in Senate District 26 before the June 2022 Republican primary accusing Stitt of animal abuse and domestic violence, neither of which is true, he said.
Stitt, who is not related to Gov. Kevin Stitt, filed a defamation suit against Common Sense Conservatives and three unnamed individuals four days before the primary. He told The Frontier he was forced to drop the lawsuit in August, because none of the individuals behind the group could be identified and the group’s mailing address listed on its filings — which checks back to a Tulsa supermarket — was invalid. The group did not file incorporating paperwork with the Oklahoma Secretary of State. Other addresses for the group in Oklahoma City and Ohio have also emerged.
Stitt said he has mostly given up on trying to find out who was responsible for the group.
“On paper, they showed up four days before the election, and the day after the election everything went away,” he said.
Common Sense Conservatives’ most recent Ethics Commission filing lists an Oklahoma City address that leads to a private mailbox service.
An Ohio attorney registered Common Sense Conservatives LLC in May 2022, about a month before the Oklahoma Republican primary.
The Ohio attorney, Kimberly Land, was also the registered agent for a bogus charity that allegedly stole $131,000 from donors under the guise of providing bottled water and emergency aid to East Palestine, Ohio, residents after the toxic Norfolk Southern train derailment in February 2023. The Ohio Attorney General is prosecuting that case against the group, The Ohio Clean Water Fund LLC.
Land is also the registered agent for several dark money groups registered in Ohio that participated in elections in other states, including Securing Louisiana’s Future LLC, Freedom Wins LLC, Unify America LLC, Georgia Jobs and Opportunity Alliance LLC, Oklahomans for Patient Care LLC, Coalition to Secure Elections LLC, Give Buckeyes a Voice LLC, Protect Our Freedoms LLC, Integrity Idaho LLC, Citizens Against Cannabis Corruption LLC, Public Safety Alliance of Oklahoma LLC, Real Story of America LLC and the Conservative Integrity Project.
In nearly all cases, Land’s name is the only name listed on the incorporation documents.
Secretary of State records show that Land is also the registered agent for a company named FEC Compliance Group LLC, originally as a trade name for the Clark Fork Group, a political consulting firm out of Columbus, Ohio. The FEC Compliance Group is listed as the employer for the managers of multiple dark money groups.
Joel Ritter, one of Clark Fork Group’s founders, was also listed as the treasurer or head of several PACs, including some that participated in Oklahoma elections.
Land did not return phone messages or emails from The Frontier, and the phone numbers listed by the PACs either did not exist or went to an answering service.
During his State of the State Speech in February to kick off the legislative session, Gov. Kevin Stitt, who was himself the target of dark money attack ads in the 2022 election, called for greater transparency, saying that Oklahomans deserve to know who is funding their elected leaders’ campaigns.
“A democracy is doomed when special interests can spread lies and leverage blank checks to buy elections,” Stitt said.
However, no bills were introduced by lawmakers that session to require more transparency from those groups.
Humphrey said the issue of secret donors financing many of Oklahoma’s public elections first came to his attention in 2018, when Conservative Alliance PAC, a federally-registered Super PAC that masked its donors, began running advertisements against several deeply conservative candidates in 2018. The Oklahoma Ethics Commission sued the group in June 2022 for failing to file disclosure reports.
That case was settled earlier this year for $45,000, a little more than 4% of the total funds the PAC raised during 2018. Such enforcement actions are rare. The Ethics Commission, which was enshrined in the state constitution by a vote of the people in 1990 and receives funding from the Legislature, has a staff of only five with a budget this fiscal year of less than $700,000.
Ethics Commission Director Ashley Kemp, who has announced she will step down in December, told Oklahoma Watch in June that the commission has evidence of campaign finance rules being broken by outside spending groups, but the commission does not have the resources to go after all of them.
“What you’re seeing is corporate buy legislators,” Humphrey said. “That’s what’s happening. It’s not just nationwide, it’s here in the state of Oklahoma.”
In 2022, Arizona voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure known as the Voters Right to Know Act that would require those groups to publicly disclose the true source of their funds. The ballot measure has survived a court challenge, but faces other challenges from dark money groups and legislative leaders there.
Humphrey said a similar measure may work in Oklahoma.
“The ideal is the same. The ideal is we have transparency,” Humphrey said. “For me, that’s where we have to come back to and say ‘look, we’ve got to come up with where’s this money coming from and who is receiving it. To me, that’s not that hard. Why would anybody disagree with that?
“Right now, it’s murky as mud.”