Spending from outside groups, many with secret donors, soared to more than $33.6 million in Oklahoma’s election cycle this year, the highest recorded level in state history, according to data from the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.

A fuller accounting of political action committees that made independent expenditures won’t be available until January, but current figures already show spending was  nearly double the $18.8 million reported in 2018, according to the Ethics Commission. 

In 2022 alone, political nonprofit groups with secret donors, often called dark money groups, directly spent at least $14.6 million in Oklahoma attempting to sway voters, more than triple the amount spent in 2018

In the face of increasing outside political spending from secretive groups, some states, including California, Maryland, Alaska, Missouri, Montana have moved to require greater disclosure in state and local elections in recent years.

Most recently, Arizona voters overwhelmingly passed a measure in November requiring dark money groups spending more than $50,000 campaigning to disclose their largest donors.

But thanks to a lack of funding from the Legislature, Oklahoma has weak enforcement and some lawmakers have even attempted to head off disclosure requirements for dark money groups in recent years.

Despite overseeing tens of millions of dollars in political spending by hundreds of filers, the Oklahoma Ethics Commission has an operational budget of less than $800,000, and is dependent upon the Legislature for funding. Adding additional information collection requirements would require resources that the Ethics Commission does not have, said Ashley Kemp, executive director of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.

“The commission has the authority. It does not have the resources,” Kemp said. 

In 2020, state lawmakers enacted the Personal Privacy Protection Act, a law that prevents state agencies from collecting donor information from nonprofits, including groups formed to influence elections. While the law allows the Oklahoma Ethics Commission to continue its current reporting requirements, it bars the campaign watchdog agency from imposing any new, more rigorous rules. Author Rep. Terry O’Donnell, R-Catoosa, did not return phone messages from The Frontier seeking comment.

Millions in dark money flooded the governor’s race

During Gov. Kevin Stitt’s reelection bid, Stitt’s campaign claimed dark money groups spent as much as $50 million on ads attacking him in support of his opponent Joy Hofmeister, a figure much higher than what publicly available numbers show.

“Clearly there were a lot of things that were off the books,” said Cam Savage, Stitt’s campaign general consultant and principal at the Indiana-based Limestone Strategies, pointing to those groups hiring public relations firms, lobbyists and consultants during the campaign. 

“It felt like everybody in Oklahoma City was making money on the deal, on both sides of the aisle.”

Armed with millions of dollars and anonymity, the outside groups funded ads with inaccurate claims that sometimes bordered on outlandish, such as one ad by the dark money-funded The Oklahoma Project that claimed Stitt regularly made the 15-mile commute from his home to the Capitol via helicopter.

Unknown funders backing Oklahoma political candidates  proliferated after the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010. The ruling held that the government couldn’t restrict corporations from funding political campaign messages. 

Secretive dark money funders often form 501(c)(4) nonprofits under the part of the federal tax authorizing social welfare organizations. Such groups are not required to reveal donors to the public, and are allowed to spend some money for political purposes. 

Dark money groups that hide the sources of their money are allowed to donate to Super PACs, which are required to disclose donors, creating a Russian nesting doll of funding. 

The lengths to which donors went in attempts to hide the source of the funds in this year’s governor’s race was particularly unusual, Savage said.

“Even if you went through the trouble to try and track them back, you eventually hit a dead end somewhere, usually around a Delaware shell corporation,” Savage said. “So somebody went to great lengths and probably great expense. People were definitely spending some money to try and keep their tracks covered.”

Sooner State Leadership, a dark money group incorporated in Delaware by Oklahoma political consultant Trebor Worthen, purchased ads at Oklahoma television stations that hammered Stitt on the state’s rising crime rate. In an interview with The Oklahoman, Worthen said the group had $10 million to spend, but would not reveal donors, telling the newspaper “We are not required to disclose our donors because we are just a group of concerned individuals advocating for quality leadership and sound policy."

Worthen declined a request for comment by The Frontier for this story.

The group never reported buying the TV ads to the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. Sooner State Leadership dodged election reporting requirements by listing the communications as “issue advocacy.” 

Two Super PACs that supported Hofmeister and opposed Stitt during the election — The Oklahoma Project and Imagine This Oklahoma — spent at least $12.9 million alone in ads. Both groups were mostly funded by Oklahoma Forward, an Oklahoma political nonprofit formed in 2020 that doesn’t have to disclose its donors. Oklahoma Forward is registered to Oklahoma City attorney Brian Ted Jones, who declined to comment for this story.

The actual wealthy donors who provide the money to fuel groups are often considered an open secret among the political class and members of the media in Oklahoma, Savage said, but the general public is nearly always kept in the dark about whose interests are being served.

“I think that’s probably the important part — the public is never going to know.” Savage said. 

Voters’ Right to Know

The most recent state to enact dark money transparency laws is Arizona, where voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure during the Nov. 8 elections called the Voters’ Right to Know Act. 

The new Arizona law requires that groups that spend more than $50,000 in political advertising during a state campaign must reveal any donor who gave more than $5,000 to it — even if those funds were routed through a dark money group to hide the donor’s identity.

The penalty for not disclosing the original source of funds can be up to three times the amount of the donation.

Terry Goddard, the former Phoenix mayor and Arizona Attorney General who helped spearhead the ballot measure, said he believes the new law will help make elections more fair and transparent. 

“I think it’s going to raise the bar significantly,” Goddard said. “It’s going to make political discussions and advertisements more civil, more accurate and more responsible. And so I have a lot of hope that by requiring disclosure, we’re going to make politics a little bit back where it used to be, where debates were about actual issues, not attacking the opponent.”

The law covers state and local elections in Arizona, but not federal races, since those election disclosures are overseen by the Federal Election Commission.

Goddard said he expects legal challenges to the new Arizona law, but believes similar measures could also work in other states, including Oklahoma.

Kemp was also skeptical about how a dark money disclosure provision similar to Arizona’s would would be implemented, given the often labyrinthine flow of money between for-profit corporations to nonprofits.

 “I think it starts to get pretty tricky to provide laws requiring disclosure that aren't overly cumbersome and won't draw a challenge,” she said. 

Andy Moore, an Oklahoman who has headed several good government groups in Oklahoma and executive director of the National Association of Nonprofit Reformers, said it is unlikely that the Oklahoma Legislature would move to clean up the state’s elections.

Moore said there are several things the Legislature could do to make the state campaign system more transparent, such as increase funding for the Ethics Commission. 

“There are things they could do, but as we see all the time, they are incentivized to not do it because they might stand to lose something,” Moore said. “Politicians don’t want to give up power. Nobody wants to give up power or disclose these donors who are otherwise able to remain anonymous.”

At least one dark money group said it would support an effort to require disclosure in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma political strategist and spokeswoman for the group Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future, Amber England said the group does not make its donors publicly available because it’s not required by law. 

“If we were to say ‘yes, we’ll openly disclose our donors,’ if everyone else would do that, we would do it as well,” England said. “But if we’re the only ones who do that it puts our issue and ourselves at a disadvantage and not on a level playing field as anyone else.”

Some dark money groups even said they would support an effort to require disclosure in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma political strategist and spokeswoman for the group Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future, Amber England said the group does not make its donors public because it’s not required to by law. 

“If we were to say ‘yes, we’ll openly disclose our donors,’ if everyone else would do that, we would do it as well,” England said. “But if we’re the only ones who do that it puts our issue and ourselves at a disadvantage and not on a level playing field as anyone else.”

England said she would support a measure to require groups like hers to publicly report who is funding their political efforts.

Savage, Stitt’s general consultant, said if a similar measure was put on Oklahoma’s ballot, it would likely pass.

“The public is clearly sick of these things. They all say they hate them,” he said. “I think it’s unlikely the Legislature would take that up for fairly obvious reasons. I’m ready for the good government groups. Where are they? I would fully anticipate after the success in Arizona, why wouldn’t they start the ballot initiative process and try to get it on the ballot in Oklahoma? My guess is it would pass in a similar way.”