(Editor’s note: This post was produced in partnership with the Oklahoma nonprofit newsroom The Frontier.)
Attorney General John O’Connor faced off with challenger Gentner Drummond on issues ranging from criminal prosecution to utility rates during a debate Thursday, June 16, hosted by NonDoc and News 9 at Oklahoma City Community College. O’Connor and Drummond will compete in the Oklahoma Republican primary on June 28.
The Frontier fact-checked some of the candidates’ claims, using interviews, government documents, court records and other sources.
Claim: Drummond sent an email about not wanting to meet with U.S. Rep. Kevin Hern because of Hern’s support for President Donald Trump.
O’Connor said: O’Connor quoted from an email he claimed Drummond wrote in 2017 disavowing Trump. “In 2017, you wrote an email that said that ‘Kevin Hern’s affinity for President Trump is a non-starter for me,'” O’Connor said.
Fact Check: Unproven
O’Connor’s campaign provided a copy of the email he mentioned at the debate, but The Frontier was unable to confirm its authenticity. Stephanie Alexander, Drummond’s campaign manager, said the email is not real and that it is “the latest attempt to smear Gentner Drummond who is a donor to both Kevin Hern and Donald Trump.” Drummond donated $500 to Hern’s campaign in 2021 and $5,000 to the Trump-affiliated PAC Save America in February, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Brett Humphrey, O’Connor’s campaign manager, said in a statement that “the document is authentic and it shows that Mr. Drummond is a never-Trumper.”
— Reese Gorman
Claim: O’Connor hid reports and documents from the public.
Drummond said: “Mr. O’Connor has failed to require transparency in our agencies and our state government by hiding reports and keeping documents from citizens.”
Fact check: Mostly true
Earlier this year, O’Connor declined to release an investigative audit into pandemic spending at the Oklahoma State Department of Health that his predecessor, Attorney General Mike Hunter, requested in 2020. O’Connor’s office said the report was an investigatory file and not a public record. State Auditor Cindy Byrd later released the audit, which found that the Health Department had violated the State Constitution by paying millions of dollars in advance for pandemic supplies. The audit also found that the state paid out more than $5.4 million for supplies it never received.
— Brianna Bailey
Claim: Federal authorities are prosecuting only one in four felony referrals from law enforcement in eastern Oklahoma in the wake of the McGirt U.S. Supreme Court decision.
O’Connor said: “Biden’s own Department of Justice says in a filing with Congress that they only prosecute one in four felony referrals. That means three out of four felony referrals from sheriffs, police departments, district attorneys to the federal government are not being prosecuted.”
Fact check: Mostly true
According to a U.S. Department of Justice budget document for the 2023 fiscal year, the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Oklahoma, headquartered in Muskogee, has opened less than a quarter of felony referrals because of limited resources.
At the end of the 2021 fiscal year, the Eastern District of Oklahoma had opened only 22 percent of felony referrals from law enforcement, and the Northern District based in Tulsa had opened 31 percent, according to the Justice Department.
Opening a case doesn’t mean charges have been filed, so prosecution rates could even be lower, according to O’Connor’s campaign team.
In the year following the 2020 McGirt decision, U.S. attorneys’ offices in Oklahoma received a 400 percent increase in referrals from law enforcement, according to the Department of Justice. The offices are prioritizing prosecuting violent felonies.
U.S. attorneys are also referring “hundreds of misdemeanors and non-violent felonies to tribal authorities,” but tribes are “not equipped to handle the heavy influx of cases,” the Justice Department claims.
Tribes in Oklahoma have spent millions to bolster their public safety systems and have filed thousands of cases following the McGirt decision. Congress also recently approved spending $62 million to help tribes grow their criminal justice departments.
A spokesperson for the Choctaw Nation said the McGirt decision strengthened the criminal justice system because it encouraged tribes to “rapidly expand their ability to charge suspects,” and tribes often handle cases that federal prosecutors don’t have the resources for.
— Kayla Branch
Claim: The state of Oklahoma has lost 33 cases at the U.S. Supreme Court while trying to undermine the McGirt ruling.
Drummond said: Oklahomans deserve an attorney general “who will sit down with our Native brothers and sisters and work toward a solution on McGirt, not hire Washington D.C. club members at $1,000 an hour and spend literally scores of millions of dollars to rack up 33 losses at the Supreme Court.”
Fact check: Mostly true
The U.S. Supreme Court’s docket shows dozens of petitions filed by Washington D.C. attorneys on behalf of the State of Oklahoma seeking to restrict or overturn the 2020 McGirt decision. So far, 33 of those petitions have been denied by the court. But the 33 cases in question were never argued before the Supreme Court, the court simply declined to hear them. While it’s accurate to say that Oklahoma “lost” those 33 cases, most of them made the same sets of legal arguments.
The state has focused much of its legal efforts into a single case — Oklahoma v. Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta, which the court agreed to hear. Oral arguments were heard in April and a decision has not yet been issued.
— Clifton Adcock
Claim: The Oklahoma Supreme Court said O’Connor failed to advocate for utility customers in the state to protect them from rate increases.
Drummond said: “We have ratepayers … who should be represented by the attorney general before the Corporation Commission, but our Supreme Court said he has abdicated his responsibility to defend the ratepayer.”
Fact check: Mostly True
In February 2021, Oklahoma was one of several states hit by a series of devastating winter storms that drove increased demand for natural gas. Utilities had to purchase natural gas on the spot market as prices spiked.
Last May, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional for OG&E to “use approximately $800 million in state-sold bonds to cover additional costs caused by the 2021 winter storm.” The opinion issued about the court was not about O’Connor specifically, however, in a concurrence justices Douglas Combs and Noma Gurich criticized the Attorney General for leaving ratepayers “without representation” after he backed off threats to sue energy companies over alleged inflated prices during the storm. As it stands, many natural gas customers in Oklahoma will pay hundreds of dollars more per year for decades to pay off the bonds.
Combs and Gurich wrote in their concurring opinion that O’Connor “failed to litigate other legitimate points” raised by concerned Oklahoma customers. The justices wrote that, had O’Connor done so, he might have “saved those consumers even more money.”
O’Connor said in a statement earlier this year that he “specifically supported efforts to reduce OG&E’s requests, and OGE’s request was reduced by $10 million in the settlement agreement approved by the Corporation Commission. The bond structure was the best way to meet the needs of customers while helping OG&E recoup costs from the unprecedented storm.”
The two candidates quibbled over a handful of facts during this segment of the debate. Drummond said “our Supreme Court” chastised O’Connor, but O’Connor pointed out it was actually “two members of the liberal wing” of the state Supreme Court who criticized him (Combs and Gurich were both appointed by Brad Henry, a Democrat).
Drummond also said that Justice Dustin Rowe, who was appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt, was critical of O’Connor in the court filing. Rowe didn’t criticize O’Connor directly, but did refer to a specific protestor who complained of O’Connor’s “non-intervention.” Rowe called that a “legitimate question.”
— Dylan Goforth
The rating system
- 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