A flood of early campaign ads has signaled the beginning of a protracted election season as Gov. Kevin Stitt seeks a second term in November. We found half-truths and misleading statements in some. The ads include some funded by a dark money group attacking Stitt in the months leading up to the election.
Claim: Kevin Stitt used the coronavirus pandemic to release 452 prison inmates.
Source: The dark money group Sooner State Leadership Fund made this claim in a recent television ad.
Fact check: Mostly false
Stitt announced in April 2020 that he signed commutations for about 450 people and highlighted the state’s efforts to “safely reduce the prison population during COVID-19.”
But the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board sent recommendations for those commutations to the governor in the months before the pandemic reached Oklahoma, said Kyle Counts, general counsel for the board. And only about 100 of those people were actually going to be released from prison immediately following their commutations for low-level, nonviolent offenses — the rest would still serve out their remaining time for other convictions.
Carly Atchison, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, told The Frontier that “there was no link between the commutations and the pandemic.”
The commutations were granted as part of changes in state law in recent years that allowed people with convictions for simple drug possession and low-level property crimes to seek reduced sentences. Stitt approved hundreds of these commutations before the pandemic in late 2019, hailed as the largest single-day commutation in U.S. history.
State prisons released only a handful of people directly because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Pardon and Parole Board approved the release of 12 prisoners on parole with high-risk medical needs in May 2020 due to the pandemic who were serving sentences for nonviolent crimes.
Trebor Worthen, who runs the Sooner State Leadership Fund, disputed the mostly false fact-check, saying Stitt’s office at the time linked the commutations to the pandemic
Claim: Stitt “turned a budget deficit into over $2 billion in savings.”
Source: Stitt made this claim in a campaign ad released on March 9: “We turned a budget deficit into over $2 billion in savings.”
Fact check: True but misleading
It’s true that Oklahoma has higher revenue and more savings this year after past budget gaps, but injections of federal relief money into the economy and swings in the energy industry have played contributing roles.
Under Gov. Mary Fallin, the state faced a $1.3-billion budget gap for the 2017 fiscal year and an $878-million hole for 2018 after years of tax cuts. The Oklahoma Legislature passed a rare tax increase on oil and gas production that Fallin signed into law in 2018, which helped replenish state coffers. But Oklahoma had to declare a revenue failure under Stitt in 2020 after energy prices plummeted and businesses shut down in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bolstered by pandemic relief money and rebounding oil and gas prices, the Oklahoma Legislature now has a record $10.49 billion to spend next fiscal year, including nearly $1.3 billion in carryover funds from previous years.
According to numbers provided by Stitt’s reelection campaign, Oklahoma will have about $2.5 billion in unused and reserve funds at the end of the 2022 fiscal year. That figure includes a projected $625 million deposit into the state’s reserve fund at the end of this fiscal year.
Claim: Epic Charter Schools sent $200,000 to an online school in California and Kevin Stitt accepted large campaign contributions from Epic associates.
Source: The political action committee The Oklahoma Project made this claim in an ad dated March 15.
Fact check: True but misleading
In 2020, Oklahoma State Auditor Cindy Byrd released a report showing Epic Charter Schools spent $203,000 to help launch a school in Orange County, California that Byrd said was “run by Oklahoma school employees.”
The Tulsa World reported in 2019 that Stitt was one of the “Top 10” recipients of donations from people connected to Epic. The paper counted donations from Epic’s two co-founders, their spouses, and other Epic administrators. But the paper only identified $10,900 donations to Stitt from Epic sources, a paltry figure compared to his overall fundraising and personal wealth. Stitt, who made his fortune in the mortgage industry, raised nearly $6 million in the run-up to the 2018 election and loaned his campaign an additional $5 million.
While Stitt ranked seventh on the list of Epic-linked contribution recipients, his opponent in the 2022 gubernatorial race, Oklahoma State Superintendent of Schools Joy Hofmeister, ranked first. Epic backers donated $52,138 to Hofmeister during the same timeframe.
Claim: Oklahoma has more violent crime than California and New York
Source: Sooner State Leadership made this claim in a television ad.
Fact-check: True but misleading
It’s true that Oklahoma had a higher rate of violent crime than California and New York in 2020, but it is misleading to attribute those numbers to Stitt, who took office in 2019.
Oklahoma had a violent crime rate of 458.6 per 100,000 people in 2020, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, compared to 442 per 100,000 for California and 363.8 per 100,000 in New York. Those figures include data on the number of murders, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults committed in each state.
Violent crime in New York and California has steadily declined from a peak in the early 1990s. But Oklahoma’s recent increase in violent crime is part of a national uptick between 2019 and 2020. Over the past decade, Oklahoma had had a higher violent crime rate than California in all but two years — 2015 and 2019. New York has had a lower violent crime rate than Oklahoma every year since 2002, long before Stitt took office
Claim: Kevin Stitt released a man from prison who later killed three people.
Source: “Laurence Paul Anderson was released from prison by Governor Kevin Stitt,” Sooner State Leadership claimed in a television ad. “Before his release, his parole officer said that Anderson remains a threat both to society and himself. but Kevin Stitt released him anyway.”
Fact check: True but misleading
Stitt approved Anderson’s commutation in 2020 after the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 to shorten his prison sentence. Less than a month after Anderson’s release in 2021, he killed three people in Chickasha, including a 4-year old girl. It’s true that Anderson’s parole officer said he was a threat to himself and society, but that was back in 2017 when he was sent back to prison after probation violations and new convictions. Anderson was originally sentenced to 15 years in prison and 20 years probation in 2012 for selling crack cocaine near an elementary school but was released after serving less than six years.
Claim: Stitt grew richer from a bank charter approved by state regulators days before he was sworn into office.
Source: “Just days before he was sworn in as governor, state regulators approved a charter for a bank controlled by his family making Stitt even richer,” The Oklahoma Project claimed in a Jan. 13 ad.
Fact check: Mixed
State regulators did not approve a charter but did sign off on a merger between Gateway Mortage Group LLC, a company founded by Stitt, and Cherokee-based Farmers Exchange Bank five days before Stitt took office in January 2019. The merger created Gateway Bank, one of the largest mortgage banks in the nation. Stitt’s family purchased 85% of Farmers Exchange Bank’s stock before he was elected in 2018. Former Attorney General Mike Hunter approved an agreement in 2019 for Stitt to step away from daily business operations to avoid potential conflicts of interest while he serves as governor.
Gateway Bank has an agreement in place that federal regulators will lead all examinations of the bank while Stitt is in office.
True: A claim that is backed up by factual evidence
Mostly True: A claim that is mostly true but also contains some inaccurate details
Mixed: A claim that contains a combination of accurate and inaccurate or unproven information True but misleading: A claim that is factually true but omits critical details or context
Mostly False: A claim that is mostly false but also contains some accurate details
False: A claim that has no basis in fact