The organizer of several dark money political groups is being sued by an Oklahoma City-based public relations firm, a lawsuit that might reveal details of donors who have contributed millions in recent years to back Republican candidates and promote oil and gas interests across the state.
In a lawsuit filed last September, Jones Public Relations, Inc., accused its former senior vice president, Joshua Harlow, of stealing several accounts and secretly taking leadership positions with some of the organizations, which include nonprofits that have spent millions on political advocacy.
Harlow, who denies all wrong doing, is now the owner of Free Market Enterprises USA, Inc., a company he launched after leaving Jones PR last year.
Several of the clients Jones PR is accusing Harlow of stealing are social welfare organizations, which are politically active nonprofits often referred to as dark money groups because they do not have to disclose donors. These groups can receive unlimited contributions from corporations or individuals.
Jones PR has issued subpoenas to several of the political organizations it claims are connected to Harlow.
In a motion to block the subpoenas, Harlow said some of his clients are concerned about the disclosure of confidential information.
My “main objection to the subpoenas is to protect their business and the anonymity of the donors of the social welfare organizations,” Harlow said in his motion.
On Thursday, a judge denied Harlow’s request, ruling the subpoenas can move forward.
One of Harlow’s clients being subpoenaed by Jones PR is Catalyst of Oklahoma, which received more than $1.7 million in 2018. Listed as its director is Allen Wright, a vice president of government affairs at Devon Energy, according to an IRS form.
Wright did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2018, Catalyst of Oklahoma transferred $260,000 to the Consumer Coalition of Oklahoma, a pro energy advocacy group that ran opposition ads against Democrat Drew Edmondson’s campaign for governor.
The Consumer Coalition of Oklahoma, which lists Harlow as a director, has also run internet ads attempting to link Democratic Rep. Kendra Horn to the Green New Deal, a proposal for addressing climate change. The ads also accuse Horn of wanting to destroy Oklahoma energy jobs.
Catalyst of Oklahoma also transferred $250,000 to the Foundation for Economic Prosperity, which backed Mick Cornett’s candidacy for governor.
Cornett, who is the former mayor of Oklahoma City, now works for Jones PR as an executive counsel. He is not a party to the lawsuit.
In its lawsuit against Harlow, Jones PR also subpoenaed Americans for Prosperity; Americans for Prosperity Foundation; Kansas Contractors Association; Kansas for Responsible Legislation; Wilson Research Strategies; No New Oklahoma Taxes, Inc.; Citizens for Accountability in Government, Inc.; Educational Choice Coalition of Oklahoma, Inc.; ABLE Alliance for Financial Empowerment; Clean Resources Oklahoma, Inc.; Energy Engaged; CMA Strategies and Prairie Dirt Solutions.
Jones PR later withdrew its subpoena of No New Oklahoma Taxes, Inc.
Brenda Jones Barwick, president and CEO of Jones PR, told The Frontier she did not want to comment on pending litigation.
Harlow emailed the following statement to The Frontier:
“I am proud of my work on behalf of clients and causes to fight for those with intellectual disabilities, expand educational opportunities, advocate for a competitive tax environment and numerous other vital issues important to Oklahoma and beyond. I started my new company as a way to more directly impact causes and it is unfortunate and quite perplexing that my former employer is trying to hurt my efforts. I am focused on my clients and impacting the communities I represent for the better.”
Jones PR claims that before Harlow resigned he began transferring ownership of client social media accounts and some contracts to himself.
“Harlow’s unlawful acts were a concerted, malicious, and deliberate effort to facilitate the theft of Jones PR’s clients, as well as Jones PR’s confidential and/or proprietary information, and to unfairly profit and be unjustly enriched from Jones PR’s research and hard work,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also claims that while working for Jones PR Harlow became executive director of some of the political firms, including Citizens for Accountability in Government, Kansans for Responsible Legislation, Clean Resources Oklahoma, Inc., Consumer Coalition of Oklahoma, Inc. and Educational Choice Coalition of Oklahoma, Inc.
On an IRS form for Citizens for Accountability in Government, Harlow is listed as the director and Jones PR, where Harlow still worked, was the recipient of $89,284 in 2016. More than $133,000 was also spent on unspecified research.
Harlow is also listed as the director of Clean Resources Oklahoma, Inc., a pro energy advocacy group that has collected more than $550,000 over multiple years.
In 2015, Clean Resources Oklahoma, Inc. transferred $250,000 to two lawyers at the Mullikin Law Firm, a South Carolina-based law firm that focuses on energy, environmental and healthcare issues, according to its website.
Jones PR also claims Harlow colluded with the National Down Syndrome Society to move its business from Jones PR to Harlow’s company.
The National Down Syndrome Society signed an agreement with Jones PR in 2017, but Harlow is alleged to have fraudulently altered the agreement and the NDSS moved its business to Harlow’s new company, according to the lawsuit.
The president and CEO of the NDSS at the time was Sara Hart Weir, who is now a Republican candidate for Kansas’ 3rd District Congressional seat.
As president and CEO of NDSS, Jones PR claims that Weir hired Harlow as communications director of NDSS and made payments to Harlow’s new company. Jones PR claims in the lawsuit that Harlow paid Weir after she left the NDSS, which Harlow said was for consulting services.
The ABLE Alliance for Financial Empowerment is a social welfare group that Jones PR has also subpoenaed. The organization, which states its mission as advocating for financial independence for people with disabilities, does not have paperwork filed with the IRS, but Weir is listed as a director on its incorporation filing with the Kansas Secretary of State.
Fighting the subpoenas
On Thursday, during a hearing to consider Harlow’s motion to quash the subpoenas, attorneys for Harlow argued that the subpoenas were an attempt to harass their client and should not be able to move forward.
If the subpoenas were to move forward, Harlow’s attorneys asked that any documents produced be given an “attorneys eyes only” designation.
“I understand how delicate this is, but I’m not going to stay the subpoenas,” Judge Don Andrews said at the hearing.
Andrews also rejected the request for an “attorneys eyes only” designation, but did grant a protective order that would restrict the produced documents from being used beyond the lawsuit.
During the hearing, an attorney for Harlow said his client was already losing business with some of the social welfare organizations, which he also predicted would file their own challenges to the subpoenas.
“I’ll take them up at that time,” Andrews responded.
Editor’s note: A sentence was changed to more clearly report that Jones PR was the recipient of $89,284 in 2016 from Citizens for Accountability in Government.