OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Prosecutors filed felony charges against Oklahoma's top public education official Thursday, saying she raised money illegally while challenging the incumbent superintendent in the 2014 Republican primary and coordinated attack ads against her in violation of state law.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said Republican Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and others plotted for more than a year. Two political consultants, a former union leader and the former head of a schools group were also charged.
Prosecutors said Hofmeister conspired with the others to funnel money from a donor corporation and the two education groups into an "independent expenditure" fund that would finance a negative campaign ad against an already embattled Janet Barresi.
Also charged with conspiracy were 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 serves as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's volunteer coordinator in Oklahoma.
The investigation ramped up after prosecutors looked at the cellphones and computer of another political consultant who had been arrested and later convicted on an unrelated felony cocaine possession charge. That consultant, Chad Alexander, a former head of the Oklahoma Republican Party, was not charged Thursday, but is listed as among more than a dozen witnesses in the case.
An affidavit released with the charges detailed dozens of messages, including one exchange from 2013 in which Hofmeister directed that a school district superintendent's in-kind contribution be changed on an Ethics Commission report so it wouldn't draw attention.
"I am concerned about some of these inkind numbers that are even round numbers," Hofmeister wrote before suggesting the amount be changed to $1,799.53, Prater said.
"This communication is important because it demonstrates Hofmeister's willingness to alter the reported amount of these contributions on official documents to avoid scrutiny," Prater's chief investigator wrote in a summary of the charges Thursday.
After the charges were announced, Hofmeister read a statement to reporters — taking less than three minutes to do so — but refused to take questions. The superintendent said she would remain on the job and that she had campaigned and served with integrity.
"I am confident that my actions throughout my campaign ... were consistent with these values and in compliance with the law," she said. "I will not be distracted."
Court records don't indicate if any of the other alleged co-conspirators have hired attorneys. Telephone messages and email messages left Thursday with the OEA, the CCOSA and with Holland and Milligan weren't immediately returned.
The prosecutor said he did not know whether any arrangements had been made for Hofmeister to surrender to face the charges. She faces 10 years in prison on each of two conspiracy counts, and one year on each of two campaign finance violations.
Hofmeister topped Barresi and teacher Brian Kelly in dominating fashion in the 2014 Republican primary, defeating the incumbent in all 77 of the state's counties. Barresi actually finished third in 71 counties. She then went on to defeat Democrat John Cox in the general election. She is the second Republican to lead the state's 700,000-student public school system.
Barresi, a former dentist, was first elected in 2010 as part of a Republican sweep of state offices in Oklahoma.
Barresi was an early supporter of Common Core education standards, but by the time of the 2014 primary, Gov. Mary Fallin had signed a bill repealing them. Barresi also backed a law requiring students to have basic reading skills by the end of the third grade and a controversial A-F grading system for school districts that was fiercely opposed by teachers and local superintendents. Legislators in 2014 modified it to make it easier for children to advance to the fourth grade.
After her loss in the primary, Barresi said unionized teachers and the long-entrenched school administrators were to blame for her poor re-election bid.
"From day one the education establishment and the (teachers) union told me they were going to get me out of office. Obviously, they were successful," Barresi said.
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