Political donations around legislative session leave lawmakers’ campaigns $1.3 million wealthier

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In total, sitting lawmakers and other state elected officials raked in $1.96 million in donations from Jan. 1 to June 30, the latest date covered by the most recent ethics filing period. About $1.3 million of that went toward legislators in the state House and Senate, the data shows. Illustration by Dylan Goforth
Oklahoma state elected officials received nearly $2 million in campaign donations in the weeks leading up to, during and after this year’s legislative session, with two-thirds of those donations going to lawmakers, according to the most recent data from the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.

In total, sitting lawmakers and other state elected officials raked in $1.96 million in donations from Jan. 1 to June 30, the latest date covered by the most recent ethics filing period. About $1.3 million of that went toward legislators in the state House and Senate, the data shows.

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s campaign accepted the most donations during that period, with more than $489,000 in donations from individuals and political action committees, followed by Attorney General Mike Hunter, who accepted $92,475 in donations since the beginning of the year.

Unlike their executive branch counterparts, state legislators are prohibited from accepting political donations from lobbyists and lobbyist principals during the legislative session, which ran from Feb. 4 to May 31.

However, lawmakers took tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from individuals and political action committees who were not registered as lobbyists during the session, and political action committees made thousands of dollars in donations to legislators in the weeks leading up to the session and after the session, ethics reports show.

Total monetary donations to state political candidates during the same time period during the last non-election year, 2017, were nearly double the current year’s donations, Ethics Commission data shows.

The biggest single donor since Jan. 1 was the political action committee Speak Up for Rural Electrification, which represents the Oklahoma Association of Electrical Cooperatives. The PAC spent $90,700 in donations ranging between $500 and $2,000 to 110 of Oklahoma’s 149-member legislature, Ethics Commission records show. The donations to each of the lawmakers’ campaigns were sent out at the same time on Jan. 24, the PAC’s filings show.

Jim Reese, lobbyist for the Oklahoma Association of Electrical Cooperatives and former Secretary of Agriculture, did not return a phone message from The Frontier.

Numerous other political action committees employed a similar method of donating to lawmakers by sending dozens, sometimes hundreds, of checks to lawmakers’ campaigns on the same day prior to the beginning of the session.

The Oklahoma Bankers Public Affairs Committee PAC, which represents the Oklahoma Bankers Association, donated to at least 121 of Oklahoma’s 149 sitting lawmakers in amounts ranging from $150 for relatively new House members to $2,500 for Senate leadership members, Ethics Commission records show. Though most of the candidates who accepted the donations did so after Jan. 1, records show that the donations were sent out in three waves from Nov. 28 to Dec. 3.

A second round of campaign donations was sent out by the Bankers PAC to 137 lawmakers on June 18, the PAC’s filings show, though the donations had yet to be accepted by the lawmakers’ campaigns before the end of the filing period.

Adrian Beverage, lobbyist for the Bankers Association and vice-treasurer of the PAC did not return a phone message by The Frontier.

Debbie Schauf, executive director of the Oklahoma Quarter Horse Racing Association — which had the fifth most campaign donations during the period with $52,000 in campaign donations since Jan. 1, said there was no legislation that the group was focused on during the session.

When donations are sent out by the PAC, Schauf said, they include a letter about the Oklahoma Quarter Horse Racing Association, its membership and its multi-billion dollar economic impact in the state.

“We don’t just make random contributions to legislators as they contact us or ask us. We study the legislators and study their background and their issues,” Schauf said. “Historically, we don’t get involved in primaries or contested races, but we help candidates about the same amount of help for a House member and a little more for a Senate member, and we help a broad group of them.”

Ethics filings show that the Quarter Horse Racing Association sent out 86 checks, ranging from $500 to $2500, on Jan. 7 to lawmakers and other elected officials. Aside from a single check sent to a lawmaker on Jan. 8, it was the PACs only donations for the period.

“We write our checks only one or two times (a year). We don’t just randomly write checks,” Schauf said. “There’s not very many we don’t help, whether they’re in leadership or not.”

Tulsa businessman Bryan Hendershot, owner of one of the largest liquor wholesalers in the state, Boardwalk Distribution, was the second largest donor during the period, with more than $73,000 in contributions given mostly during the legislative session, while his wife Mary “Betsey” Hendershot was the eighth largest donor overall with $24,550 in contributions to lawmakers. The Hendershots had been pushing lawmakers last session to pass Senate Bill 608, which would require manufacturers to sell their top brands of liquor to any wholesaler who wants to purchase them. The timing of the Hendershots’ donations, coupled with the effort to change state liquor laws came under scrutiny at the time.

Rep. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City, was the House sponsor of SB 608 and was responsible for inserting the language requiring liquor manufacturers to offer their top products to all wholesalers. Kannady, who received the third most in contributions since Jan. 1 with $40,900, accepted two $2,700 donations, the maximum amount, from the Hendershots.

Neither the Hendershots nor Kannady returned phone messages left earlier this week by The Frontier.

Meanwhile, Sen. Paul Rosino, R-Oklahoma City, was the lawmaker who accepted the most donations since Jan. 1, with around $48,000 in contributions received, the Ethics Commission data shows. About 30 percent of the donations to Rosino, who sponsored a bill modifying the fire fighter and police retirement system, came from several fire fighter unions around the state.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, raked in the second largest amount of donations since Jan. 1. The $46,500 in donations came from numerous sources, followed by Kannady and Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, who accepted $40,450 in donations.

Wallace did not respond to a list of written questions sent to him on Wednesday, but McCall issued a statement addressing the contributions.

“Whoever holds the position of speaker tends to hear from nearly everyone with interests at the Capitol, from industry to issue advocates to everyday citizens,” McCall said. “No issue sticks out as far as what people wanted to talk about most this session because our office works on virtually every issue, and they are all important. We receive input from all parties on any matter, whether they are a contributor or not. At the end of the day, we all vote based on the needs of the constituents in our districts.”

To view the full Oklahoma Ethics Commission data used for this story, click here.

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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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