Dark money ads kick off 2022 campaign season

TULSA, Okla. — A series of dark money ads kicked off the 2022 election season last month, but there is limited information on who is funding the ads aimed squarely at one man running for re-election, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt.

The ads accuse Stitt of profiting from his office and links him to an alleged dramatic rise in violent crime in Oklahoma that makes it worse than New York or California.

>>>MORE: Gov. Stitt laid out his priorities in the 2022 State of the State.

At the bottom of the ads in the fine print, two separate groups appear to be going after Stitt: The Sooner State Leadership Fund and The Oklahoma Project.

The Oklahoma Project is registered as a political action committee with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. Sooner State Leadership is a limited liability corporation operating as a 501c4 social welfare organization for tax purposes.

Because of how they operate financially, FOX23 was able to get public information on one but not the other. Sooner State Leadership is being run as a non-profit and does not have to report its fundraising efforts to the state. The Oklahoma Project is a PAC and must register fundraising numbers with the state, donor names, and expenditures.

According to campaign filings, TOP in its last reported quarter received man small donations, many of whom can be traced to as voters who’ve registered as Democrats. The average donation to the group ranged between $5-$500. There were multiple large donations from a group called Oklahoma Forward, but no financial information was available on the state ethic’s commission website for that group. However, on opensecrets.org, a website that tracks political spending, Oklahoma Forward is another PAC that has been in operation since as early as 2012. Oklahoma Forward is a PAC belonging to one man, Tulsa resident George Krumme, founder of the Krumme Oil Company and a three decade committeeman for the Democratic National Committee. Oklahoma Forward is funded by a single reported donation of $30,000 by Krumme. However, TOP reported last quarter that Oklahoma Forward gave them $185,000 in donations.

Things are not as complicated when it comes to the Sooner State Leadership Fund. The group was started by Former State Representative Trebor Worthen who is both chairman and treasurer. Worthen now does strategic communications for elected officials, but he does not disclose who those officials are on his website.

FOX23 reached out to TOP and SSL for comment. We have not heard back, partially because the number listed on TOP’s website and at the bottom of some of its ads is disconnected.

FOX23 dug into its own public sales files and found that Oklahoma City based public relations and consulting firm Heartland Campaigns has been helping to produce and sell The Oklahoma Project’s ads, including to FOX23. In some of the filings and even some TV ads airing for TOP, there is a phone number that links to Heartland, but no one responded for comment when FOX23 News called.

The Stitt For Governor 2022 campaign called the groups dark money in a statement to FOX23 because of how difficult it is to figure out who is behind the ads and what the ads are specifically trying to achieve.

“Once again, more lies from special interest groups who aren’t being transparent about their intentions,” Stitt 2022 Campaign Manager Donelle Harder said. “Governor Stitt’s commitment to lead as a conservative political outsider is clearly upsetting some big bosses out there who feel threatened by his unwavering agenda to represent all 4 million Oklahoma, to fight for law and order and fairness in our justice system, and to deliver the promised Oklahoma Turnaround with historic economic achievements.”

FOX23 News will note that during our digging for information and getting a response from the Stitt campaign, we noticed both sides are claiming to be for “all Oklahomans” and talking about treating “all Oklahomans equally.” This language is very similar to the on-going disputes we’ve seen being played out between Stitt and Oklahoma’s multiple tribal governments when it comes to the tribal gaming compact, tribal sovereignty issues over their land, and especially related to the Supreme Court’s historic McGirt decision.