Oklahoma state education chief Joy Hofmeister faces two state felony charges of illegal campaign-fundraising activities during her successful 2014 campaign to oust embattled then-Superintendent Janet Barresi.
A 32-page affidavit issued Nov. 3 alleges that 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.
Hofmeister, who denies the allegations, was charged with “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.
Also facing charges are Lela Odom, a former director of the Oklahoma Education Association; Steven Crawford, a former executive director of the Cooperative Council of Oklahoma School Administration; and political consultants Fount Holland and Stephanie Milligan. Milligan was a volunteer coordinator in Oklahoma for Republican presidential victor Donald Trump.
Hofmeister and Crawford have pleaded not guilty. Hofmeister’s next hearing will be Dec. 13.
The independent expenditure group, Oklahomans for Public School Excellence, according to the affidavit, accepted donations that were illegally excessive and illegal corporate donations. Oklahoma Watch, a local news organization, profiled the group during the 2014 election season. Hofmeister, a Republican, beat out Barresi in the primary and went on to win the general election.
During a short press conference the day the charges were outlined, 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.”
Oklahoma Education Association spokesman Doug Folks said in a statement that Hofmeister and the others charged in the case 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.”
Despite calls from the state’s Democratic Party leaders, Hofmeister said she will not resign.
Hofmeister, though a Republican, came into office with the support of many teachers who opposed Barresi for carrying out an agenda pushed by Republicans who dominate the Oklahoma legislature.
In recent years, for example, lawmakers instituted 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 many 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 teachers’ union saw the ousting of Barresi as evidence that their collective voice has power. In response, more than 25 teachers filed to run for the legislature this year. Only five won.
Hofmeister has benefited from waves of support from the state’s teachers, thousands of whom congregate in a closed Facebook group. She often posted pictures of herself campaigning with the teachers who ran for the legislature and sidesteps the local news media by rolling out many of her initiatives in the group.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as Oklahoma Schools Chief Facing Campaign-Finance Charges