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Dark money campaign hits state auditor race

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Someone is spending a lot of money to keep state Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd from winning a second term, and no one can say with certainty just whom that is.

Records show independent television expenditures for Steven McQuillen, Byrd’s only opponent in a June 28 Republican primary to decide the entire race, of at least $280,000 and perhaps as much as $680,000.

In addition, at least three statewide mailers, each of which could cost as much as $100,000, have gone out supporting McQuillen or opposing Byrd.

The money being spent on McQuillen’s behalf seems unlikely to be out of enthusiasm for him personally. Several better-known Republicans, who asked not to be identified, said they were approached to run against Byrd and declined, despite a promise that money would be no issue.

Byrd can’t say for certain, but she thinks she has a pretty good idea who’s behind the anonymous campaign.

“I believe that most of the dark money being used against me in this race is from the founders of Epic Schools in retaliation for my office’s audit that exposed their scheme of taking millions of dollars from our students’ education funds,” Byrd said in a written statement.

“I shut down the flow of taxpayer funds lining the pockets of bad actors, so they’re coming after me,” she said.

In fact, a wall of 501©(4) nonprofits and political action committees, some with ties to a nonprofit named in a lawsuit filed last week by the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, protects the donors’ identities.

Calls left on the cellphones of Epic’s founders, Ben Harris and David Chaney, were not returned Thursday. Neither was a call to Fount Holland, a prominent Republican consultant whose company appears to have produced the mail pieces.

In some of the mailers, McQuillen promises to “protect our southern border,” stop “C.R.T. in our schools,” and “stop gender identity indoctrination in our schools” — none of which is within the purview of the state auditor and inspector.

Dark money and independent expenditures are not unique to the auditor race, especially in the era of Citizen’s United and the Internal Revenue Service’s unwillingness to enforce laws limiting 501©(4) nonprofits’ involvement in politics.

Probably millions of dollars have been spent by dark money groups attacking Gov. Kevin Stitt. This week, a group called Oklahoma Conservative Patriots Alliance disclosed $561,000 in ad buys opposing Stitt and supporting long-shot GOP primary opponent Joel Kintsel.

A Washington-based PAC named School Freedom Fund, apparently aligned with the school choice movement, has spent $625,000 in Oklahoma Republican legislative primaries. On the other side, a group called Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future, is spending at least $300,000 opposing Stitt’s chosen state superintendent of schools candidate, Ryan Walters.

But auditor and inspector races rarely if ever attract this kind of attention, financial or otherwise. Unlike other offices such as corporation or insurance commissioner, it has no natural donor pool, and voters are often unaware of the candidates.

Byrd’s 2018 campaign cost less than $140,000. She’s reported less than $90,000 in contributions this year, and McQuillen hasn’t reported any.

A final preelection report is due next week.

Retired from a midlevel administrative position with Tulsa Public Schools, McQuillen doesn’t seem to have campaigned much or to be very well-known. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business from Oklahoma Wesleyan University but is not a licensed accountant, according to the state accountancy board’s directory.

Legally, the job requires only “at least three years’ experience as an expert accountant” — but most recent state auditors have been licensed accountants.

McQuillen did not respond to phone messages.

Byrd said she is convinced that he’s a “strawman.”

An Ethics Commission filing shows that Truth PAC, based in Oklahoma City, bought $280,596.60 in television time for McQuillen earlier this week. It has reserved more than $680,000 in air time, but it is not clear whether all of that is for the auditor and inspector campaign.

Records show that Truth PAC was created June 9 with Matthew Parker as chairman and treasurer. Parker is a business partner of Fount Holland.

The filings do not show the source of the $280,000.

The mailers carry the stamp of Holland and Parker’s company, CAMP, and the name “American Values First” and a Tulsa address that is a box at an office supply store.

American Values First is the name of a Washington-based federal SuperPAC operated by Joel Riter, a well-known Republican operative who was mentioned in the Ethics Commission lawsuit against Conservative Alliance PAC, which is accused of not filing the required disclosures during the 2018 state election and illegally coordinating its advertising with at least one candidate.

Both Conservative Alliance and the Washington-based American Values First received large transfers from a 501©(4) named Prosperity Alliance, which is known as a political contribution pass-through that allows donors to exceed federal contribution limits while maintaining anonymity.

Prosperity Alliance has been accused of violating IRS rules that limit 501©(4) political activity.

Also contributing to the federal American Values First this year is Oklahoma-based Pioneer PAC, which is chaired by Glenn Cosper, a Moore attorney with education connections.

American Values First is not registered with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, and its Federal Election Commission filings do not show any independent expenditures in Oklahoma.

Byrd’s 2020 report on Epic after an audit ordered by Gov. Kevin Stitt documented what she ultimately called “the largest amount of reported abuse of taxpayer funds in the history of this state.”

The audit fueled ongoing investigation by several agencies.

It also fueled animosity toward Byrd by individuals and groups connected not only to Epic but what is broadly known as the school choice movement.

Statements by lawmakers during this spring’s legislative session indicated that the Epic audit was likely a factor in the failure of a far-reaching voucher bill favored by Stitt, Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat and other influential people and organizations.

Featured videos: State Auditor Cindy Byrd speaks to lawmakers about Epic audit

Epic Charter Schools audit recommendations make it into legislation

Epic co-founder Ben Harris audio from Jan. 14, 2021

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