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COMMENTARY
Conspiracy charges
(NonDoc)

When news broke Thursday that Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater had charged a slew of political figures for conspiracy and violation of state campaign laws, most media and public attention focused on the elected official of the bunch — State Superintendent for Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.

While Hofmeister has considerable power in a statewide office, the felony charges against renowned political consultant Fount Holland and Donald Trump’s battleground state political director, Stephanie Milligan, somehow managed to avoid creating their own, separate headlines.

If found guilty, Hofmeister, Holland, Lela Odom, Steven Crawford and Milligan would face “up to 10 years in jail if prosecutors are able to prove the five conspired to violate laws setting limits on state campaign contributions,” according to the Tulsa Frontier, which has published one of the deepest looks yet into the criminal case.

But with charges coming less than a week before the climax of a stressful 2016 election season on Tuesday, the enormity of Prater’s case may have been lost (for now) among swirling national stories, local state-question advertisements and general public/media fatigue with anything that says “politics.”

For that, many of those charged in the alleged conspiracy are fortunate to avoid worse headlines. Holland, for instance, is consulting on dozens of ongoing races, and Milligan is spearheading efforts to make Donald Trump win in swing states.

Odom and Crawford are education-advocacy bureaucrats who have, at different times, been involved in various campaigns and efforts.

‘Conspiracy’ background

Prater’s case stems from Oklahoma’s 2014 election cycle, which saw then-Superintendent of Public Instruction and wealthy dentist Janet Barresi lose in the GOP primary to then-Jenks Public Schools Foundation board member Joy Hofmeister.

Prater’s chief investigator, Gary Eastridge, alleges in a fascinating affidavit (see below) that Hofmeister clearly understood how coordinating with an “independent expenditure” group to attack Barresi was a violation of state campaign laws.

Some of the information obtained for Prater’s case came from the electronic devices of lobbyist-turned-radio-host Chad Alexander, who was arrested in the middle of the 2014 campaign for drug possession. Alexander and Milligan are engaged to be married.

Prater has prosecuted political shenanigans before, notably convicting former Rep. Randy Terrill of bribery and sending him to jail for a year.

‘Freaking out’

The evidence included in Eastridge’s affidavit for this case is damning, and it paints the picture of a political novice (Hofmeister) looping personal confidant Ryan Owens on many messages about the planning of her campaign. Meanwhile, Owens, the current executive director of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, is also shown to have been integral in the development of the IE supporting her candidacy.

In text messages and emails obtained by Prater’s office, Hofmeister once calls Oklahomans for Public School Excellence “my IE” and even uses emoticons to imply unstated meaning when referring to it.

Owens is also caught noting that Hofmeister and her team were “freaking out” after realizing Owens had listed himself as the “registered agent” for Oklahomans for Public School Excellence.

The full affidavit is below:

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Interestingly, Owens is not charged with any crime himself, despite being one of the central figures connecting the Hofmeister campaign to the IE, a fact that attorneys for Holland, Odom, Crawford and Milligan might raise in defense of their clients.

But Owens appears to have spilled plenty of beans during the interview process, and his name appears on an impressive list of witnesses that includes former Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee, former Oklahoma Secretary of Education Phyllis Hudecki and Holland business partner Trebor Worthen.

The affidavit notes that Milligan declined to speak with Prater’s office for its investigation, but Owens and many others did.

No wonder the public is cynical

With an otherwise well-respected statewide elected official facing criminal charges alongside two #oklaed industry relics and two noteworthy Oklahoma campaign hacks, political science professors have even more evidence as to why the Sooner State’s electorate uses cynicism for pomade.

Holland — along with Alexander, Milligan and others — is often credited with helping turn the Oklahoma Legislature and its State Cabinet blood red.

But money and politics make for strange bedfellows, and one particularly honest statement from Holland buried in the affidavit is likely to churn stomachs on both sides of the aisle. In it, he discusses the Oklahoma Education Association, a teacher’s union with deep pockets, a powerful base and a reputation for sometimes being inept. Odom was its executive director in 2014.

“A little savvy would make OEA unstoppable,” Holland tells Hofmeister and others in the early planning stages of her campaign and the supporting IE. “The question is are they for us, and can they be quiet and stomach our right wing rhetoric long enough to get what they really want; a pro education environment for our state.”

As the waters calm post-Election Day, public scrutiny will likely fall more heavily on Prater’s case and the powerful defendants who may have been caught red-handed owing to their own sloppiness.

In Holland’s words, perhaps a little more savvy would have made them all unstoppable.

(Editor’s note: This post was updated at 8:45 a.m. Monday, Nov. 7, to correct a date and Joy Hofmeister’s previous education position. NonDoc regrets the error. The author occasionally appears on Chad Alexander’s radio show on News-Talk 1520 AM KOKC, which airs weekdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.)