By Jay Chilton, CIJ
Among the political candidate, campaign consultants, and political groups mentioned in the prosecutor's affidavit against Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister and four others, one name stands out. American Fidelity is an Oklahoma City-based insurance company that reported more than $7.5 billion in assets and more than $1 billion in revenue in its latest annual report.
American Fidelity is identified as the source of $100,000 that Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater alleges was funneled through the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) and the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration (CCOSA) into a political account to support Hofmeister’s ultimately successful campaign for Superintendent of Public Instruction.
While independent political groups can support candidates, it is illegal for a candidate or a candidate’s campaign staff to coordinate with such a group because such activities can circumvent public disclosure laws.
In an email quoted in the affidavit, Hofmeister writes to Jenks Public Schools Superintendent Kirby Lehman after a meeting with attorney Glenn Coffee: “He likes Chad Alexander for the independent campaign which would be where he would put CCOSA, OSSBA [Oklahoma State School Board Association], OEA money, plus amounts from corporations as it would all be anonymous. This independent campaign would do be [sic] negative ads and allow me to take the high road with my own campaign.”
The prosecutor's affidavit also suggests an explanation for American Fidelity’s interest in education politics, quoting one defendant’s explanation that “OEA and American Fidelity have had a 50 year relationship” and “OEA has helped AF build their business by endorsing their ‘salary income protection policy.’”
On April 17, 2014, American Fidelity issued a check to the OEA for $50,000. Four days later, the company issued a check to CCOSA for the same amount. According to the affidavit, multiple officials within the company knew the funds would be transferred into an independent expenditure committee to provide anonymous support to the Hofmeister campaign.
Hofmeister faces five felony counts, including accepting contributions in excess of the legal maximum, accepting corporate contributions, and conspiracy. A preliminary court hearing is set for August.
While American Fidelity was identified in the affidavit, neither the company nor any of its staff were charged with any crimes.
In May of 2016, American Fidelity appears to have adopted another unusual political strategy when it hired Angela Clark Little as part of the company’s “Strategic Quality Management” staff. Despite her listing as a full-time company employee, much of Little’s time is committed to advocating increased expenditures for public education, opposing school choice reforms, and campaigning for the election of candidates who support those positions.
Little’s lobbying efforts have been noted by many legislators and generally take place during regular working hours. If a business pays someone to lobby at the state Capitol, state law requires both the business and the individual to register with the state Ethics Commission and requires the lobbyist to file regular monthly disclosure reports.
Little is also the founder of the Edmond-based political organization, Oklahomans for Public Education. On the "About" tab of the organization’s Facebook page, the group’s stated mission is “to support candidates with pro-public education agendas.”
CIJ asked several state representatives and senators about their impressions of Little and her political organization. All who responded were familiar with her advocacy work, and some identified her as the top public education advocate at the state Capitol.
Some legislators said that they see and speak to Little regularly, both at the Capitol and at political functions across the state. Even though Little, through direct advocacy and her political organization, is considered one of the most powerful pro-public education lobbyists in Oklahoma, she is not registered as a lobbyist with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.
If American Fidelity is paying Little for her time lobbying the legislature, the company and Little may be in violation of Oklahoma laws intended to provide public transparency and to prevent corruption.
CIJ contacted American Fidelity for comment. The company has not responded.
Little denies any wrongdoing. "I have only been to the Capitol four times this session for which I used paid personal time off," she told CIJ. "Thankfully, the relationships I made last session have allowed me to reach out to Legislators and discuss issues in the evenings since I am unable to be there during the day."
This is a developing story.