The race for the Republican nomination as Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction wasn’t even close.
In the 2014 primary election, Joy Hofmeister won the nomination with 57.6 percent of the vote. Incumbent Janet Barresi trailed in third with 21 percent.
Still, Hofmeister and her campaign team had spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to defeat Barresi through attack ads focused on how the climate of Oklahoma’s education system looked bleak under Barresi’s leadership.
It wouldn’t have taken much to convince voters otherwise following Barresi’s controversial tenure.
In 2014, a “no confidence” petition representing school administrators and suburban school districts had more than 11,000 signatures. An Oklahoma Board of Education member and a state legislator called for her resignation. So did the Oklahoma Parent-Teacher Association.
Barresi was also at one time a supporter of Common Core, deemed to be largely ineffective and then repealed by the Legislature in 2014.
Hofmeister raised almost $1.5 million by the 2014 primary and Barresi was only able to keep up by loaning more than $1.25 million to her own campaign.
Still, Hofmeister and team had good reason not to take the race for granted. Despite Hofmeister receiving almost more than 100,000 votes than Barresi did in the June primary, a poll conducted by SoonerPoll in May showed 52 percent of voters were undecided.
To many voters, Hofmeister — a political novice backed by the political power brokers at A.H. Strategies — was an attractive alternative to the divisive Barresi. But according to charges brought by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, Hofmeister and her team of political advisers decided they needed to cheat the system anyway.
Hofmeister has strongly denied the charges and said she plans to defend herself against them. She was arrested and released on bond last week.
During the 14 months between Hofmeister’s entry into the race and the election, she exchanged dozens of emails and text messages with A.H. Strategies founder Fount Holland, his partner Trebor Worthen, former Secretary of State Glenn Coffee and other well known political advisers about how to beat Barresi.
They launched a plan to funnel $100,000 in corporate contributions through two education lobbying groups to an “independent expenditure” account, also known as a dark money fund, the charges allege. The fund was used to pay for attack ads against Barresi as the election drew near.
The charges allege that Hofmeister, Holland and three other defendants — Stephanie Milligan, Steven Crawford and Lela Odom — violated state campaign laws barring coordination between the candidate’s campaign and an independent expenditure group.
Prater said he has been in touch with attorneys for Holland, Crawford, Odom and Milligan and all four are supposed to surrender by Thursday.
They face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charge: conspiracy. A conviction for a campaign violation is punishable by one year in prison and also can carry hefty fines.
The charge is the first of its kind filed in Oklahoma and thought to be one of a handful filed nationally since a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed dark money groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on electioneering.
Some critics have questioned whether the charges were politically motivated, pointing out that Prater filed them less than a week before Tuesday’s election, when an education sales tax will be on the ballot. Prater has declined to comment on his investigation, referring reporters to the lengthy affidavit filed with the charge that includes dozens of emails and text conversations between the defendants.
The charges could have a sweeping impact on political campaigns in Oklahoma. Holland has worked with more than 100 Republicans including Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett, State Treasurer Ken Miller and Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb.
Holland, 53, is a former Tulsa World reporter who founded A.H. Strategies in Muskogee in 1997. The political consulting firm is now based in Oklahoma City.
A.H. Strategies is credited for the historic Republican takeover of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and was active in the state Senate Republican party’s rise to power after years of a Democratic hold.
A.H. Strategies did not respond to requests for comment from The Frontier.
Worthen, another A.H. Strategies’ principal, played a role in discussions with Hofmeister about the dark money group, according to the affidavit.
Though Worthen was not charged Friday, the affidavit contains emails and references to him and lists him among more than a dozen witness. The affidavit includes text messages sent by Hofmeister to Worthen in which she states the independent expenditure group is hers.
When investigators with the Oklahoma District Attorney’s Office asked Hofmeister, Worthen and Holland about the message, they said they couldn’t recall it, the affidavit states.
Worthen is described on A.H. Strategies’ website as a senior associate with the firm. He was elected at age 23 to the state Legislature, where he served two terms in the House. He later became political director of the Oklahoma Republican Party.
Worthen left the Legislature to start Majority Designs, a political consulting and direct mail company. A.H. Strategies’ website states that the company owns Majority Designs, which produces campaign ads for the firm’s candidates.
Worthen has helped manage the campaigns of local political figures including Bartlett and Sheriff Vic Regalado. He did not respond to requests for comment about his role in the Hofmeister case.
Coffee, a political strategist, attorney, former Secretary of State and former president pro tempore, is listed as a witness on the affidavit.
In 2013, Coffee started the law firm Glenn Coffee & Associates, which focuses on government, ethics and campaign finance.
Hofmeister told investigators she only knew of the independent expenditure group because Coffee told her about it, the affidavit states.
Coffee did not respond to a request for comment from The Frontier.
The affidavit also indicates Coffee advised Hofmeister on which political consultants to work with on her campaign. He allegedly suggested Chad Alexander for the independent campaign.
“(Coffee) likes Chad Alexander for the independent campaign which would be where he would put CCOSA, OSSBA, OEA money, plus amounts for corporations as it would be all independent,” Hofmeister wrote in an email to former Jenks Public Schools Superintendent Kirby Lehman.
“This independent campaign would do be (sic) negative ads and allow me to take the high road with my own campaign.”
Hofmeister also wrote that Coffee was willing to consider being retained as her campaign’s political strategist, but Owens thought she should hire him as legal counsel to ensure attorney-client privilege, according to the affidavit.
Lela Odom, the Oklahoma Education Association’s former executive director, was also charged Thursday with conspiracy and violating state campaign laws. On Friday, the OEA released a statement regarding Odom’s involvement.
“In its 127 year history, the Oklahoma Education Association has advocated ethically and honorably for Oklahoma public schools, students, and education professionals,” the statement reads.
“We are disappointed to see that charges have been filed against former OEA Executive Director Lela Odom, but we firmly believe that when this matter is resolved, she will be cleared of any wrongdoing. In the meantime, OEA will continue our work to advance public education for the benefit of all Oklahoma students.”
OEA spokesperson Doug Folks on Friday declined to answer questions related to the allegations. Folks also declined to comment on whether he believed the charges will affect the outcome of the state question on education sales tax, which the OEA supports. The OEA lobbies for increased public education funding and employee benefits.
The affidavit states American Fidelity, an Oklahoma-based insurance company, gave $50,000 to OEA and the same amount to the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration. OEA and CCOSA each agreed to contribute $100,000 of their own funds plus the $50,000 American Fidelity contributed, according to the affidavit. The money was later transferred to Oklahomans for Public School Excellence, the dark money group used to finance negative ads against Barresi.
The OEA and CCOSA are registered with the Secretary of State as nonprofit corporations, according to the Oklahoma Secretary of State website.
The affidavit states American Fidelity and OEA have had a 50-year relationship. OEA has endorsed American Fidelity’s salary income protection policy.
The affidavit alleges American Fidelity officials agreed to fund the independent expenditure group but declined to be involved in the group’s board. No charges have been filed against the officials with the insurance company.
In a statement to The Frontier, the company said: “There are no allegations that American Fidelity did anything improper. We have fully cooperated in this investigation and will continue to do so.”
Serena Watson, spokesperson for CCOSA, said the organization respects the judicial process. She declined to comment on the charges against former executive director Steven Crawford or CCOSA’s involvement.
Crawford was also charged Thursday with conspiracy and violating state campaign laws. Odom and Crawford denied involvement with the independent expenditure group, according to the affidavit. However, emails show Crawford and Odom approving an ad for Hofmeister’s campaign.
“I love it,” Odom wrote. “Only thing that would make it better is if the picture of Janet was worse than this one.”