Law & Principles

Lawmaker calls for ethics investigation of Hofmeister

November 22, 2022

Ray Carter

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister may exit office the same way she entered it: under scrutiny for alleged violations of Oklahoma campaign laws.

State Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, has asked the Oklahoma Ethics Commission to investigate whether Hofmeister illegally used taxpayer funds to support her unsuccessful 2022 gubernatorial candidacy.

In a letter sent to the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, Humphrey referenced an Oct. 27 report by the Washington Examiner that found that Hofmeister’s government website linked “to her campaign’s social media accounts, and the government has seemingly promoted her Twitter posts.” The Examiner found that Hofmeister’s page on the Oklahoma State Department of Education website linked to her gubernatorial campaign accounts on Twitter and Facebook.

The Examiner found no other instance of a statewide officeholder in Oklahoma who engaged in the same practice.

The Examiner also found that the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s Twitter account had retweeted Hofmeister’s campaign account and tagged her campaign.

Following the Oct. 27 report, the Washington Examiner found that officials at the Oklahoma State Department of Education scrubbed the agency’s website of social-media links to Hofmeister’s campaign accounts.

Oklahoma Ethics Commission Rule 2.4 says, “No person shall use or authorize the use of public funds, property or time to engage in activities designed to influence the results of an election for state office or a state question, except as permitted by law or these Rules.”

In his letter to Oklahoma Ethics Commission Executive Director Ashley Kemp, Humphrey asked the Commission “to investigate this matter to determine if these violations may have occurred.”

He also wrote, “If true, I expect legal action to be taken.”

In her first election for state superintendent, which occurred in 2014, Hofmeister benefited from spending by outside groups in ways that were alleged to have violated state law.

During the 2014 campaign, a group calling itself Oklahomans for Public School Excellence (OPSE) spent $300,000 on an ad attacking Hofmeister’s major Republican primary opponent, incumbent state Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi. Money for the ad came from the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), a teachers’ union; the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, a lobbyist entity that represents school administrators; and American Fidelity, an insurance company that has a longstanding relationship with the OEA.

In 2016, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater filed felony charges against Hofmeister and three other individuals, alleging Hofmeister had illegally accepted campaign contributions in excess of the maximum allowed under state law, including illegal corporate contributions.

“The evidence shows that the defendants knowingly operated OPSE outside the guidelines of a 501c4 and coordinated with the Friends of Joy Hofmeister 2014 campaign while hiding their actions under the guise of an Independent Expenditure,” the prosecutor’s affidavit stated.

The affidavit included numerous communications between officials with the supposedly independent-expenditure campaign and the Hofmeister campaign, as well as texts indicating that Hofmeister viewed the IE campaign as an extension of her own.

In one message Hofmeister identified several of the groups that would be funding Oklahomans for Public School Excellence and discussed who should run the supposedly independent expenditure (IE) campaign.

The affidavit also included a May 2, 2014, text from Hofmeister where she declared that wind-turbine lobbyists are “interested in my IE” followed by a smiley face emoji. Other communications showed that Hofmeister knew of the contents of an IE ad prior to the ad being aired.

When Hofmeister met with investigators on June 17, 2016, the affidavit stated that Hofmeister claimed she “had no specific knowledge of the Independent Expenditure.” The affidavit then stated, “When pressed to explain the communications where she referred to her IE and the communications that appeared to show knowledge of its operation, Hofmeister’s attorney (Gary) Wood halted the interview.”

Prater, a Democrat, later dropped the felony charges. No detailed explanation was ever publicly provided for the about-face.

On Oct. 7, 2021, Hofmeister announced that she was formally switching parties to become a Democrat and run for governor against incumbent Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt.

Humphrey raised questions about Hofmeister’s use of state resources to support her gubernatorial campaign prior to the Nov. 8 election. In a statement issued at that time, Humphrey said, “I find it amazing that Superintendent Hofmeister is accusing Governor Stitt of corruption while being exposed for illegally using her state office, state personnel, equipment, and materials for her own personal campaign. I am equally baffled by the sources of her vast and substantial campaign spoils. It is time for the Ethics Commission to kick in and restore election integrity.”

During this year’s campaign, millions of dollars were spent on attack ads targeting Stitt, indirectly benefiting Hofmeister’s candidacy. Many of the groups involved are not required to report their contributors.

Officials with Stitt’s campaign have publicly estimated as much as $50 million may have been spent attacking the governor and propping up Hofmeister after accounting for television advertising, digital ads, mailers, and other forms of campaign support.

Hofmeister’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Humphrey’s call for an Ethics Commission investigation.

It is not known if the Oklahoma Ethics Commission will take any action on Humphrey’s complaint. In 2018, officials with the commission announced that they would not pursue an ethics lawsuit against Hofmeister over her alleged illegal activity in the 2014 campaign, saying it would be expensive. The Ethics Commission decided against pursuing the case even though the office of the attorney general had offered to provide a lawyer free of charge. An Ethics Commission official said the use of an outside attorney would create an apparent conflict of interest.