Dark money groups spend thousands ahead of June 30
The local arm of a national “dark money” group is linking state lawmakers to movie producer and convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein, following the lead of a separate national organization ahead of Oklahoma’s primary elections.
The Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund released mailers before the June 30 primary targeting Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, for supporting a film industry tax credit last year. The mailers show his photo next to Weinstein with the words “taxpayer giveaways to Hollywood elites.”
Dark money groups don’t have to disclose donors, meaning money flows into elections from unknown sources.
In the last few days, the fund has reported spending over $100,000 to support seven other incumbent lawmakers up for reelection, all who also voted in favor of the film tax credit, which passed overwhelmingly in 2019. Jennifer Carter, senior advisor for the Oklahoma fund, did not respond to questions.
A separate national group also recently attacked Sen. Stephanie Bice, who is running for U.S. Congress, for voting for the tax credit and linked her to Weinstein as well.
Sharp called the mailers propaganda and said the group was using “underhanded tactics.” He believes the group is attacking him for questioning how charter schools are funded in Oklahoma.
The American Federation for Children, the national umbrella for the Oklahoma Federation for Children, reported to the IRS that it is "the leading national advocacy organization promoting school choice, with a specific focus on advocating for school vouchers, scholarship tax credit programs and education savings accounts.”
The Oklahoma branch’s direct mail piece against Sharp doesn’t mention school choice or vouchers. But Sharp did vote against a bill to expand the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act last year.
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“I know from my perspective as a legislator that they have questions with me because I understand the problems with the education funding formula,” he said. “When I question that in public ... that is why they are attacking me.”
The Oklahoma Federation for Children also opposes Rep. Chris Sneed, R-Fort Gibson, attacking him for supporting the same film tax credit and voting, along with the majority of lawmakers, to use pension funding from teachers and firefighters to fill budget holes this year.
Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, a Republican, defended the film incentive last week, saying the film industry will pay nearly $45 million in wages to thousands of Oklahomans this year. Pinnell said the state’s incentive program “has been a major economic benefit.”
Several other “dark money” groups are also spending thousands ahead of Oklahoma’s election. In the two weeks leading up to the June 30 election, numerous groups have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into state races.
A mailer was sent out by the group OK Progress criticizing Rep. Ajay Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, for missing nearly 30% of votes last session.
Pittman said even though dark money groups are legal, she believes they are harmful to the democratic process.
Political action committees associated with state House and Senate Republican leaders have spent heavily to protect their incumbents facing primary challengers, much of it on direct mail in districts where challengers typically have little money and a few thousand dollars can go a long way.
The House and Senate leadership funds have reported donors and, under the way they have organized with the ethics commission, must continue to do so.
But certain groups established as non-profit corporations under federal tax laws can keep their donors secret.
The American Federation for Children is a 501(c)(4), a social welfare organization under federal tax law, which is the filing status used by dark money groups.
“They are manipulating elections,” Sharp said. “When you have dark money in an election, that is not fair to the public voter, and it’s not fair to an individual running for public office. They can say anything."
The two groups spending the most money in the final days are on opposite sides of the Medicaid expansion question — Yes On State Question 802/Oklahomans Decide Healthcare and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.
The Oklahoman has asked both groups for a list of donors but has not received one.
The pro-expansion group, which has blanketed the airwaves with ads, has disclosed only a fraction of its spending. Two separate groups, one a “social welfare organization” under federal tax laws and the other a so-called Super PAC that can raise unlimited amounts of money from individual donors, have been financing the question going back to the spring of 2019, when petitions were circulated.
It is not clear how much of the spending and how many donors will ever be revealed, though the group doesn’t have to reveal any donors before Tuesday’s election. Some donors, like the Oklahoma Hospital Association, have disclosed their financial backing separately.
The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank, has not formed a committee with the ethics commission and is apparently spending through its non-profit corporation.