Gov. Kevin Stitt’s Task Force on Campaign Finance and Election Threats recommends allowing politicians to accept unlimited contributions from individual and political parties in order to weaken the influence of dark money in state races. The task force also recommends Oklahoma triple campaign contribution limits from political action committees to candidates from $5,000 per election to $15,000.

Though it was not listed as a recommendation, the task force also said in a report issued Monday it “would not oppose lifting” the current restrictions against politicians receiving direct monetary contributions from corporations and unions.

Stitt created the task force in November 2023 to study campaign finance, foreign investment and interference in Oklahoma elections.

The nine-person task force is made up of eight Republicans and one registered independent, according to voter registration records. Four of the nine task force members are former Oklahoma Republican Party officials. Two members, including task force chairman A.J. Ferate, have been responsible for forming dark money groups, which can raise and spend unlimited funds on elections while hiding their donors. Members were appointed by Stitt, Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, House Speaker Charles McCall. The task force also included State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax and Secretary of State Josh Cockroft. 

The task force said in its report it believes “significant change” is needed to keep outside special interest groups from outspending candidates in political races. 

Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman A.J. Ferate speaks at the grand opening of a new GOP community Center in Oklahoma City. FACEBOOK

Ferate said in an interview with The Frontier that the state should seek to bring more power back to the state’s major political parties and significantly increase contribution limits to candidates. Current regulations cap individual donations to candidates at $3,300 per election and contributions from political action committees to $5,000 per election.

“The recommendation is to try to bring balance back to the relationship between political parties and candidates on one hand, and the independent expenditure groups on the other,” Ferate said. “I think that independent expenditure groups are at a very meaningfully significant advantage over candidates and political parties right now. And the only way that we can restore it is to allow everybody to play on the same level playing field by extremely similar rules in order to actually accomplish some sort of a parity and give back the candidates the ability to control their own message.”

Alicia Andrews, chairwoman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, questioned the lack of non-Republican representation on the task force and how any of the recommendations would be enforced without increasing funding for the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.

But she would still like to see some of the recommendations enacted. Oklahoma’s campaign contribution limits make fundraising harder and encourage the formation of dark money groups to get around the rules, she said.

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“If some of those restrictions are lifted, I think that will be good for local politics in Oklahoma,” Andrews said. “I believe that a lot of outside money comes into our politics because of the restrictions that we have on donation caps, and that I think encourages outside donations.”

The task force made recommendations on election security, ethics and other emerging issues.  Recommendations include making foreign expenditures in an election a felony, enforcing existing requirements that independent expenditure groups have treasurers based in Oklahoma with a working phone number, requiring independent expenditure nonprofits to be incorporated in Oklahoma, and requiring group treasurers to certify that no campaign funds came from foreign sources.

The report also recommended eliminating contribution limits for all “natural persons” who donate directly to a politicians. Another recommendation is to allow unlimited transfers from political parties to candidates, and create caucus party committees to coordinate between house and senate members and candidates.

Independent expenditure groups, sometimes referred to as dark money groups because many are able to keep the true source of their campaign donations secret, have been involved in numerous political corruption and bribery cases since they were first allowed to participate in elections by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. The groups have had an increasing presence and influence in elections at all levels, from local school board races to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last year, Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder was convicted in federal court of racketeering conspiracy and sentenced to 20 years in prison for a $61-million bribery scheme in which an electric utility company used dark money groups to funnel money to state officials to provide the company with a multi-million dollar taxpayer bailout. Householder and others involved in the conspiracy also face state charges in the case.

In Oklahoma, dark money groups have also been involved in some of the biggest political scandals in recent years. Independent expenditure groups were used by the now-indicted heads of Epic Charter Schools in an attempt to unseat a state senator and State Auditor Cindy Bird after critical comments about the school system’s use of taxpayer money, former state Schools Superintendent Joy Hofmesiter was arrested in 2016 for her campaign allegedly coordinating with dark money groups, but charges were later dropped. Oklahoma House Republican leadership launched a successful under-the-radar effort in 2018 to oust some of the hardline conservatives in its caucus with help from dark money. 

The Frontier reported last week that a Tulsa school board candidate was getting support from a newly-formed Super PAC run by her husband. Both candidate and her husband denied there was any coordination between her and the super PAC.

Despite sometimes spending millions to get a candidate elected or defeated, candidates who benefit from dark money organizations almost always publicly deny knowledge of the groups or who is behind them, since it is illegal for those groups to coordinate with candidates. But in reality, those organizations are often formed and operated by the same groups of political consultants running candidate campaigns. And those campaigns are currently happening at all levels of government in Oklahoma.

While the task force’s report and recommendations did not address issues of corruption of public officials through independent expenditure groups, it did warn that those groups were overtaking actual candidates in campaigns.

Voters fill out their ballots at Northpark Mall in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on November 8, 2022. Nick Oxford for The Frontier

Ferate said that the state is powerless under the law to require dark money campaign groups to disclose their donors to voters.

But other states have adopted stricter requirements on dark money disclosure that have, thus far, survived legal challenges.

In 2015, the Montana Legislature passed the DISCLOSE Act, which requires nonprofits spending in elections to register with the state’s ethics commission as political committees and report contributors. Arizona voters passed the Voters Right to Know Act in 2022, which requires nonprofits that meet certain conditions participating in elections to disclose the true source of their funds.

Though Stitt praised the report, he said in a statement to The Frontier he had hoped the task force would “take a deeper look” at how any outside governments interact with state elections.”

Oklahoma tribes helped fund Stitt’s gubernatorial opponent Joy Hofmeister in the 2022 election.

“It is a complicated relationship as, for instance, many Oklahomans maintain other citizenship or membership, but their separate governments, who operate as sovereign nations, tend to play an outsized role in campaigns around the state and in the Capitol. There needs to be a conversation about how that plays out in future elections,” Stitt said.

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