‘Dark money’ group spending thousands of dollars in governor’s race has close ties to candidate, ministry

Campaign finance records also show Fisher donated $10,000 to his church from his House campaign funds after deciding not to run again. Fisher says the donation was cleared by the Ethics Commission.

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Dan Fisher. Illustration by Dylan Goforth

A newly-formed political group closely tied to Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Fisher and his Yukon ministry has purchased numerous advertisements around the state endorsing Fisher, though its donor or donors remain anonymous thanks in part to its unique business structure.

According to public filings with the Federal Communications Commission, the group Citizens for Free States, LLC, has spent more than $24,000 and taken out more than 200 television and radio ad spots around the state both endorsing Fisher and promoting the cause of state sovereignty and abolishing abortion, two of Fisher’s primary campaign platforms.

Fisher, a former state representative and head pastor of Liberty Church, Yukon, Inc., is one of six contenders for governor in the upcoming June 26 Republican primary.

Though one independent expenditure group has already popped up this election cycle in the governor’s race — a SuperPAC named Oklahoma Values that is backing Republican candidate and former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett — the Citizens for Free States LLC group is what is commonly referred to as a “dark money” group.

Unlike SuperPACs, dark money groups, also known as nonprofit social welfare groups, do not have to publicly report their donors, though both SuperPACs and dark money organizations often work in concert to conceal donors. Under the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Citizens United vs. FEC, SuperPACs and dark money groups can receive unlimited donations and spend unlimited amounts of money in elections, though dark money groups cannot spend more than half their funds on electioneering.

In addition, Citizens for Free States was established in February as a domestic limited liability corporation, a type of business structure usually reserved for for-profit businesses. However, the group has submitted an application to the IRS seeking nonprofit status, though the application has yet to be approved.

Fisher said neither he nor his campaign has any contact with Citizens for Free States.

Oklahoma Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Fisher. Courtesy News9.

Coordination between a candidate and an independent expenditure group backing them on a campaign is against state and federal law.

However, those listed as directors for Citizens for Free States’ have deep ties to both Fisher and his church, Liberty Church, Yukon, Inc., and both Fisher’s campaign and Citizens for Free States use the same Tulsa marketing agency to purchase advertisements, according to FCC and Oklahoma Ethics Commission records.

The group’s executive director is former Owasso State Senator Randy Brogdon, who was part of Fisher’s campaign leadership team, has been a close adviser and ally to Fisher, publicly endorsed Fisher’s run for governor, appeared in at least one of Fisher’s campaign ads, and to whom Fisher referred to as “an old friend.”

The group’s treasurer and operations director is conservative activist and former talk radio host Mark Kreslins, who was listed in Fisher’s campaign paperwork as “Assistant Director” of Fisher’s Liberty Church, Yukon, and who worked closely with Fisher for years on promoting and creating a funding plan for Fisher’s “Black Robed Regiment” ministry.

Kreslins has also delivered sermons for Fisher’s church, telling parishioners that he was involved in discussions with Fisher and his wife about Fisher’s plans to run for governor, according to audio recordings of sermons posted on Liberty Church’s website.

During at least one sermon, Kreslins explicitly endorsed Fisher’s gubernatorial candidacy from the pulpit.

“I think if Dan doesn’t win, prepare for God’s judgement,” Kreslins told the church during a Feb. 25, 2018 sermon.

Mark Kreslins, treasurer and director of operations for Citizens for Free States. Courtesy/LinkedIn.

Though making political endorsements from the pulpit is strictly prohibited by churches under IRS rules governing their tax status, Liberty Church, Yukon, might not have 501c3 nonprofit status, according to the IRS, and is organized only as a nonprofit corporation under state law.

Despite Citizens for Free States consisting of some of Fisher’s closest allies and associates, Fisher told The Frontier he had little knowledge of the group or its activities.

“What is that group?” Fisher said when asked whether he had heard of Citizens for Free States. “I hear about so many different groups, I’m not real familiar with them, no.”

Both Citizens for Free States and Fisher are part of what is often referred to by proponents as the “abolition movement” — individuals and groups who view abortion as murder, and who believe politicians and organizations that label themselves “pro-life” do not go far enough in their policies to immediately and fully make abortion illegal.

If elected, Fisher said, he will immediately make abortion illegal and disregard court rulings allowing women access to abortion services.

Brogdon said Citizens for Free States shares that goal.

“My primary goal is to use it as a platform to discuss the abolition of abortion,” Brogdon said. “I believe we need to end abortion in Oklahoma. I also know the way we do it is by asserting our state’s rights, our state sovereignty.

“The federal government has absolutely zero authority to tell Oklahoma that we have to have laws on our books to allow for the murder of 15 to 20 babies every single day. It seems our current state leaders in Oklahoma are blinded to the fact that the state of Oklahoma doesn’t have to kill 20 babies a day.”

Advertisements appearing on the Citizens for Free States website.

According to the group’s application to the IRS for tax-exempt status, filed April 17, the group had received $121,000 in donations.

Kreslins, as operations manager, receives $5,000 per-month, the applications states, and no more than 40 percent of the group’s funds would be put toward electioneering, with the rest of the group’s funds going toward educational efforts about the abolition of abortion.

Brogdon refused to name the donors to Citizens for Free States, LLC, how many donors there were or whether any churches donated directly to the group.

The group was set up the way it was specifically to keep donors anonymous, he said.

“I don’t give out any information on my donors,” Brogdon said. “That’s the reason I set the PAC up as I did, because it’s a non-disclosing unlimited organization they can give to, so I have to protect their privacy.”

Brogdon said he fears donors could face retaliation if their name or names were revealed.

“In this hateful political world we live in today, there’s a lot of people who would like to contribute to these common causes,” Brogdon said, “but don’t necessarily want to be named and face political scrutiny on a particular subject they believe in.”

Fisher and Brogdon both said the group was not coordinating or in contact with Fisher’s campaign, and Fisher said he did not know who the group’s donors were.

“We have to stay completely clear of that group and whoever is giving to them,” Fisher said. “I’m just trying to play it completely safe and steer completely clear, and whatever they do they do, and if they like what I’m saying, that’s great and if they don’t, well, that’s not so good, but that’s the way it goes.”

The Black Robes of Liberty

Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Fisher, wearing a Colonial Army outfit for his Bringing Back the Black Robed Regiment presentation. COURTESY

Wearing a Continental Army uniform, Fisher stands on the stage at the First Baptist Church of Moore. He speaks confidently to the large crowd gathered for the 2011 Reclaiming America for Christ conference, organized by Edmond pastor Paul Blair.

Just as he did numerous times before and since that 2011 event, Fisher, who was then head pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Yukon, spoke of the “Black Robe Regiment” — groups of Revolutionary War-era pastors in colonial America who spoke from the pulpit encouraging their parishioners to join the revolution against British rule.

The ability for preachers to talk about politics and make endorsements from the pulpit was stifled, Fisher said, in the 1950s when the IRS made rules that could revoke a church’s tax-exempt status if they became involved in political issues. This, he said, violates the First Amendment, and modern-day pastors should take a page from those preachers during the Revolutionary War to combat moral and civic decline in America.

“Pastors today are convinced that they’re going to lose their nonprofit status, and they’re going to get in trouble with the (Internal Revenue Service) if they preach what they believe about what the Bible says about politics,” Fisher said during the event. “Friends, that’s a fat lie because Paul Blair and I have been doing it for three years straight just daring the IRS to come here.”

Fisher’s presentation, which he has given to churches, organizations and rallies since 2008, was one of the highlights of the event, and it is something he has continued to do up through late 2017, when he announced his candidacy for governor, visiting several states to deliver his message.

“We believe it is wrong for the government to try and limit the free speech for pastors,” Fisher said in an interview with The Frontier. “I’ve been speaking out about that for a long time.”

In 2012, Fisher successfully ran for state representative and served until 2016, when he chose not to run again. Among his campaign endorsements at the time were Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, State Sen. Randy Brogdon and former State Sen. Ralph Shortey.

Fisher’s run for a State House seat was endorsed by several prominent conservative politicians, including former Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who was appointed in 2017 by President Donal Trump to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. /COURTESY

During that time, he met Mark Kreslins, a business owner, Tea Party activist and talk radio host who had moved to Oklahoma from Maryland in 2012. According to Kreslins’ LinkedIn page, he became a consultant for Fisher’s Black-Robed Regiment ministry, which is also known under the name The Resonance Movement.

Kreslins wrote that he helped perform a rewrite of Fisher’s book on the Black Robed Regiment, worked “in all facets” in the creation of a movie based on the book, and came up with funding proposals for Fisher’s ministry.

In 2015, Fisher stepped down as senior pastor for Trinity Baptist Church and started his own church — Liberty Church, Yukon, Inc., a nonprofit corporation, where he also served as head pastor. Kreslins was a member, part-time preacher at the church and, according to campaign records, assistant director of the church.

Fisher said Kreslins was “instrumental” to the formation of the church and was heavily involved with his Black Robe Regiment ministry.

Liberty Church, Yukon, does not have its own building, but rather meets on Sundays at the City of Yukon’s Dale Robertson Center.

A search of an online IRS tax-exempt organization database for a Liberty Church in Yukon or Lakewood Baptist Church (which the church was known as for a short period) turned up no records showing it had received tax-exempt status, though Fisher said the church sought tax-exempt status. Though churches are not required to obtain IRS nonprofit status, they are often encouraged to for tax and charitable giving purposes.

“I believe we are,” Fisher said when asked about the church’s tax-exempt status. “Others were kind of doing the actual paperwork when that church was formed, but from what I understand we actually got a 501c3.”

In 2014, Fisher ran for a second term as state representative unopposed, and his campaign spent less than $1,000 during that campaign cycle, Oklahoma Ethics Commission records show.

Fisher decided not to run again during the next election, and on March 31, 2016, zeroed out the remaining money in his campaign fund, Ethics Commission records show.

In the campaign’s final transactions, $1,500 went to Precision Strategies Group, a consulting firm owned by now-former Moore State Rep. Ralph Shortey and about $1,400 went to Fisher for travel reimbursement.

The remaining $10,919 in his campaign fund was donated by Fisher to his own church, listed on Fisher’s Ethics Commission filings as a 501c3 charitable organization — Lakewood Baptist Church, the name under which Liberty Church was briefly known as after it was organized by Fisher in 2015.

Though it is unclear how the money was used by the church, and candidates are allowed to donate to charitable organizations, state ethics rules prevent candidates from using money donated to campaigns for personal benefit, whether directly or indirectly, said Ashley Kemp, Ethics Commission executive director.

Fisher told The Frontier that his campaign cleared the donation with the Ethics Commission before it was made.

“We called with them and checked with them and they said it was not a problem,” Fisher said. “That’s the decision we made.”

Freeing the States

Former State Sen. Randy Brogdon, executive director of Citizens for Free States. COURTESY

Fisher’s campaign for governor began in earnest in July 2017, when paperwork establishing his candidate committee was filed with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. The first infusion of cash into the campaign came from a $20,000 loan by Fisher, records show.

After Fisher announced he was running for governor, Kreslins began to give sermons at Liberty Church endorsing Fisher’s candidacy and in which he spoke about Fisher’s campaign strategy.

“The campaign strategy has been directly targeted to the Christian community in this state, you need to know that,” Kreslins told the congregation during his Feb. 25 sermon. “His (Fisher’s) whole strategy is about ‘we’re going to go to the Christians,’ because there’s 1.3 million evangelicals in this state who should hear his words and say ‘oh, those aren’t Dan’s words, those are coming from our commander-in-chief (God). I need to obey that.’”

Kreslins said during the sermon that he and others were in close discussions with Fisher about his decision to run for governor, but that Fisher’s eventual decision to run caused some members of Liberty Church to leave the church.

“It breaks my heart that there were actually people who left this church because he’s running for governor, trying to rescue those who are being led to death,” Kreslins said during the February sermon, referring to Fisher’s strong stance on abolishing abortion. “It breaks my heart when I’m out there and hear fellow brothers in Christ condemn Dan Fisher, because he’s trying to obey. He’s trying to follow his commander-in-chief.”

Kreslins did not return phone messages from The Frontier seeking comment.

Initially, Fisher denied that Kreslins was involved in his campaign for governor.

“Mark has been a member of my church for years, so he’s been very supportive of me personally, but he never had any official position in our campaign at all,” Fisher told The Frontier.

However, in a follow-up telephone interview with The Frontier, Fisher confirmed both Kreslins and Brogdon had worked on his campaign’s all-volunteer leadership team until around two months ago when they joined the Citizens for Free States group.

“At that time, obviously, we have to cut ties with them. Not in a hostile way, but we just can’t have anything to do with a PAC or organization like that in the campaign,” Fisher said. “They’re off on their own now.

Fisher said Kreslins involvement with the Black Robe Regiment ministry was also severed when he went to Citizens for Free States.

“When he went with this PAC, we also cut ties with him even at that level,” Fisher said, adding that Kreslins even stopped attending his church in an effort to keep a distance from his campaign and the group. “I don’t know that we needed to, but we just did it anyway.”

Fisher said the separation between his campaign and Brogden and Kreslins was amicable, and was done in order to avoid campaign requirements.

“Those guys are friends. I haven’t been able to talk to them anymore until the election is over. We’re completely separate from that group,” Fisher said. “I’m just trying to play it completely safe and steer completely clear, and whatever they do they do, and if they like what I’m saying, that’s great and if they don’t, well, that’s not so good, but that’s the way it goes.”

Oklahoma Secretary of State records show Citizens for Free States was established on Feb. 8 by its registered agent Drew Rees, a Tulsa attorney who served for years as the Tulsa City Council administrator before resigning late last year.

Rees is also the registered agent for OK Taxpayers Unite!, LLC, which is currently in the process of gathering signatures for a ballot proposal repealing tax increases passed by the Legislature this session to fund, among other things, teacher pay raises.

Rees is also listed on Citizens for Free States’ IRS application as the group’s general counsel.

The group’s application for 501c4 status has not yet been approved by the IRS, Rees said, but it does plan to file its taxes as a nonprofit corporation, rather than through its owners’ personal income taxes, which is allowable as an LLC. No other nonprofit organization has an ownership stake in the LLC, Rees said.

For the past two election cycles, Rees said, there have been several special interest groups participating in elections that have filed their state business registrations as Limited Liability Corporations before seeking nonprofit status to buy ads advocating for or against candidates.

“I wish we could say we invented the wheel, but we did not,” Rees said. “As far as we’re aware at this time, we’re in full compliance with IRS regulations.”

But Tulsa attorney Philip S. Haney, who specializes in nonprofit law and has worked as an attorney for numerous nonprofits for more than 40 years, said it would be difficult for a limited liability company that does not already have a nonprofit organization as one of its owners to achieve 501c4 status.

“I’ve never really heard of anyone wanting to do this,” Haney said. “If I were advising any individual who was paying money to that organization, I would advise them not to until I saw the determination letter by the IRS or all the governing instruments of the LLC.”

Though its application to the IRS has yet to be approved, the group is still allowed to function as a 501c4 while the determination process is ongoing, Haney said.

Citizens for Free States’ website is a “.org” domain, which is usually reserved for nonprofit organizations, and the group solicits donations on its website, though the solicitation does not state that a donation would not be tax-deductible.

As a 501c4, “you can ask for payments, and you should on the website explain that payments made to the entity are not deductible for income tax purposes,” Haney said.

Brogdon said such a disclosure should be on the group’s site, though he was unsure where.

Brogdon said the group is primarily issue-driven, rather than candidate-driven.

One of its advertisements does not mention any candidate for governor, and the group made a pledge to abolish abortion in Oklahoma open to all gubernatorial candidates to sign, though Fisher was the only one who did.

“As it stands right now, Dan Fisher is the only one who has signed the abolitionist pledge and who is running for governor as an abolitionist,” Brogdon said. “We have made that known in some of our commercials.”

Brogdon said it was his idea to create the group, and once the campaign is over he would like to use the entity for activities in other states in an effort to make abortion illegal.

Brogdon said he used to consider himself “pro-life,” and as a State Senator, authored what he saw at the time as anti-abortion measures, such as a bill later signed into law requiring women to get ultrasounds before an abortion. Later, Brogdon said, he realized he and other “pro-life” policy-makers were only nibbling around the edges of the issue, rather than taking it head on.

“I thought that I was stopping abortions. But several months ago, it hit me like a ton of bricks that since my legislation passed in 2006, over 50,000 babies have been murdered in compliance with the pro-life legislation I got passed,” Brogdon said. “So I realized that for 45 years since Roe v. Wade, incremental pro-life legislation has kept abortion legal in the state of Oklahoma. So as an abolitionist, we believe the only way to stop it, to end abortion is to immediately abolish it. No incremental steps, no special little laws to deal with, but to write one law to outlaw abortion and make it illegal and criminalize it here in Oklahoma. That’s the difference.”

State sovereignty is the second of the group’s main policy issues, Brogdon said, since federal courts would likely make an attempt to overturn any state effort to outlaw abortion.

Brogdon has said on the group’s Facebook page that Citizens for Free States is an “unlimited PAC,” though the group has yet to file paperwork with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission establishing itself as an official political action committee. PACs are required by the Ethics Commission to reveal their donors and how they spend their funds.

“We are not a political action committee, so we are not governed by the Ethics Commission,” Brogdon told The Frontier. “We are governed by the IRS, with it being a 501c4. Now, if we raise a whole bunch of money, I probably will set up a PAC as well, but we don’t have that need right now because we are still driving the issues right now.”

Brogdon said the decision to form a group governed by federal IRS rules to raise funds and participate in the election, rather than forming an in-state PAC under Oklahoma’s state election rules, does not conflict with the group’s principles of advocating state sovereignty and fighting federal government overreach.

“The state doesn’t offer this kind (of organization), or else I would have done it,” Brogdon said, “but the state doesn’t offer this kind of organization.”

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Clifton Adcock

Senior Staff Writer

A veteran investigative reporter who has covered eastern Oklahoma for more than 15 years, Clifton joined The Frontier in April 2017. A native of southeastern Oklahoma, he has covered numerous issues from criminal justice to politics for publications including the Tulsa World, the Oklahoma Gazette, and Oklahoma Watch. Clifton holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. Clifton can be reached at clifton@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @cliftonhowze
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