Oklahoma Superintendent Faces Felony Charges Connected to Fundraising

By Daarel Burnette II — November 04, 2016 3 min read
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Oklahoma’s state education chief Joy Hofmeister faces two state felony charges for illegal campaign fundraising activities during her 2014 campaign to oust embattled superintendent Janet Barresi, reports the Associated Press.

According to the 32-page affidavit issued Thursday night, Hofmeister for more than a year conspired with several others to funnel money from a donor corporation and two education groups into an independent expenditure fund that would finance a negative campaign ad against Barresi.

She was charged for “knowingly accepting contributions in excess of the maximum amounts” and two counts of “conspiracy to commit a felony.”

She faces 10 years in prison on the two conspiracy counts and a year on each of the two campaign finance violations, according to the AP.

Also facing charges are former Oklahoma Education Association Director Lela Odom, former Cooperative Council of Oklahoma School Administration Executive Director Steven Crawford and political consultants Fount Holland and Stephanie Milligan. Milligan is a volunteer coordinator in Oklahoma for Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump.

The independent expenditure group, Oklahomans for Public School Excellence, according to the affidavit, accepted illegal excessive donations and illegal corporate donations. Oklahoma Watch, a local news organization, profiled the group during the 2014 election season.

Hoffmeister, a Republican, beat out Barresi in the primary and went on to win the election in the conservative state.

During a short press conference Thursday night, Hofmeister said, “I will vigorously defend my integrity and reputation against any suggestion of wrongdoing. And I will fight the allegations that have been made against me.”

She didn’t take questions from reporters.

I traveled to Oklahoma earlier this election cycle to profile several teachers who had decided to run for office.

The state’s teachers have long griped about an increasingly combative legislature which is dominated by Republicans. In recent years, they’ve instituted a 3rd grade reading proficiency law that held back thousands of students, an A-F accountability system that labeled several of the state’s schools as failing and began to include standardized test scores in teacher’s evaluations. Amid a funding crisis because of a dip in oil prices, teacher pay has stalled and mass layoffs have led an inordinate amount of districts to go to four-day school weeks.

Teachers also blame the legislature for a teacher shortage that’s forced the state department to issue thousands of emergency teacher licenses.

The teacher’s union saw the ousting of Barresi as evidence that their collective voice has power. In response, more than 40 teachers filed to run for office this year.

Hofmeister has benefited from waves of support from the state’s teachers, thousands of which congregate in a closed Facebook group.

She often posts pictures of herself campaigning with teachers running for the legislature and sidesteps the local media by rolling out many of her initiatives in the group.

Alicia Priest, the state’s current teachers union president told me last week that it’s extremely difficult to raise campaign funds for the group of teachers running for office because of a series of laws passed in recent years that cap unions’ contributions.

“Candidates must have funds to have an effective campaign,” she told me. “Our education community has made the connection that everything about public education is political. That’s why our members are so actively engaged.”

Update: Oklahoma Education Association’s spokesman Doug Folks said in a statement that Hofmeister will eventually be exonerated.

“In its 127 year history, the Oklahoma Education Association has advocated ethically and honorably for Oklahoma public schools, students, and education professionals,” Folks said. “We are disappointed to see that charges have been filed against former OEA Executive Director Lela Odom, but we firmly believe that when this matter is resolved, she will be cleared of any wrongdoing. In the meantime, OEA will continue our work to advance public education for the benefit of all Oklahoma students.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.