Democratic House PACs, Oklahoma Ethics Commission
Members of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission announce a settlement with four political action committees during their meeting Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. (Michael McNutt)

As part of a settlement that includes $11,800 in fines, a political action committee formed to help elect Democrats to the Oklahoma House of Representatives and three affiliated committees will dissolve.

Approved Friday afternoon, the settlement with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission will spell the end for the Oklahoma House PAC and three affiliated PACs: Noble, Empower and Oklahoma Oak. Members voted 4-0 to approve the agreement after meeting for nearly two hours in executive session to discuss these and other cases.

Cathy Welch, president of Campaign Technology Professionals LLC in Oklahoma City, signed the settlement agreement. Welch, who is registered as treasurer of all four PACs, did not return a phone call or email seeking comment before the publication of this story.

The Oklahoma House PAC was formed in 2018, and the other three committees were formed in 2022. The OEC investigation found that some of the money raised in support of Democratic House candidates ended up with the House Democratic Caucus, where it paid for staff and other expenses.

“They were working together as a unit,” said Stephanie McCord, the commission’s deputy director and general counsel. “Based on their reports, they were raising money for candidates (…) but if you look at their expenditures, they spent some of the money on candidates and spent other money on political caucus activities.”

One of the complaints was filed in 2020, and the five others were filed last year. They included:

  • Using PAC funds to fulfill commitments, obligations or expenses of the House Democratic Caucus, caucus members, caucus staff and/or other PACs;
  • Failing to include the appropriate disclaimer language on solicitations for contributions to the PAC;
  • Inaccuracies in the PAC’s statement of organization, including listing the PAC as an affiliated committee of a political caucus, was timely corrected when brought to the PAC’s attention;
  • Accepting a prohibited $500 contribution from a corporate entity, which was timely refunded when brought to the PAC’s attention; and
  • Improperly reporting PAC contributions to candidate committees as in-kind expenditures.

The agreement instructs the PACs to pay their fines within 30 days by certified checks to the state’s General Revenue Fund, the principal funding source for most Oklahoma government operations.

Most of the $11,800 fine levied by the Ethics Commission will be paid from the remaining funds in each of the committees. Broken down, the fines include:

  • The balance of the remaining funds of Oklahoma House PAC, about $900;
  • The balance of the remaining funds of Noble PAC, about $1,100;
  • The balance of the remaining funds of Empower PAC, about $4,800;
  • The balance of the remaining funds, if any, of Oklahoma Oak PAC; and
  • $5,000 paid by an officer or officers of the Oklahoma House PAC and/or the other committees.

House Minority Leader Cyndi Munson (D-OKC) declined to comment on the settlement, deferring comment to her predecessor, former Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman). Virgin also declined comment, deferring to the terms of the agreement.

The four PACs are classified as limited committees, which means they are organized to make contributions to candidates and are limited in the amount of contributions they can accept from a contributor, as well as the sources from which they can accept contributions. They also may only accept contributions within allowable limits and are prohibited from accepting contributions from corporations and labor unions.

Friday’s action marks the third year in a row for the Ethics Commission to make significant settlements with legislative PACs.

In July 2022, the OEC struck a similar agreement with the Republican Senatorial Committee, a key political action committee that had supported the upper chamber’s GOP Caucus for nearly two decades. The PAC paid more than $62,000 to the state and dissolved.

In May 2023, the commission settled complaints for $45,000 with the Conservative Alliance PAC, an Ohio-based committee that was accused of not following basic reporting laws in Oklahoma after fueling dark-money advertisements in 2018 Republican primaries.

Budget request gets positive reaction from Senate committee

Oklahoma medical cannabis bills
The sun sets on the Oklahoma State Capitol in February 2023. (Tres Savage)

Before the Oklahoma Ethics Commission governing board went into executive session, Lee Anne Bruce Boone, the agency’s new executive director, reported that a Senate budget subcommittee recommended most of the agency’s budget request for the 2025 fiscal year, which begins July 1. The commission is asking lawmakers to restore the agency’s funding to the amount it received in the 2016 fiscal year. Cuts to the budget — and, subsequently, staff — were not restored after various shortfalls that occurred during that time.

For Fiscal Year 2016, the commission received $837,000 from the Legislature. Its appropriation for the current fiscal year is $687,900. In recent years, the commission’s dynamic with both legislative chambers has been strained owing to significant investigations and settlements involving influential legislators in both the Senate and the House.

Eight years ago, the initial shortfall left the deputy director position vacant, and subsequent legislative changes affecting the commission’s fee revenue left it without funds to support candidate and committee education programs.

The commission’s total request for state funding next year is about $2.4 million. The commission is seeking $1.2 million in operational funds — with $837,000 of that representing 2016 fiscal year level of funding. The increase in the upcoming fiscal year to restore that funding would amount to $149,273.

The commission is also requesting several other items, including funding for a department on political subdivisions as required by SB 1745, which passed in 2014.

The commission is also requesting $177,400 for a director of compliance, which would provide education programs and serve as another attorney assisting the general counsel and executive director. The position at one time was paid partly through state appropriations and partly through fee revenue. budget shortfalls over the years and a cap on the agency’s revolving fund left the commission with insufficient funding to fill the position after the director of compliance was promoted to general counsel in 2019. The position has been vacant since then.

Commissioners also are requesting $1.2 million in special project funds for a new system to track campaign activity and lobbyist spending in Oklahoma. Boone, who started her duties as executive director in January, announced last month that Civix agreed to extend its contract to operate the Guardian System through February 2025. However, the company is still mothballing the platform next year.

The Senate budget committee recommended a $300,000 increase for the agency to go toward a new online reporting system. Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd (D-OKC) has filed SB 1488, which seeks $2.4 million to replace the Guardian System with a new reporting platform.

Read OEC’s agreement with the Oklahoma House PAC

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