McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

State House

June 22, 2014

Election Records: ‘Dark-money,’ campaign groups have close ties

OKLAHOMA CITY — Key individuals involved in a so-called “dark-money” group supporting T.W. Shannon for U.S. Senate this year have had close ties with the campaign or its main consulting firm, according to state, federal and other public documents.

Those same individuals helped lead a separate independent political group in 2012 that had close connections to the consulting firm representing some state candidates also supported by the political group.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said this week his office is looking into possible criminal conduct stemming from allegations that former state House Speaker Shannon, who is running against initial frontrunner U.S. Rep. James Lankford in the GOP primary for Senate, improperly colluded with an outside group that has spent more than $1 million on advertising to benefit Shannon. Prater said this week his office is in a “fact-finding” mode to determine the merit of the complaints; no one has been charged with a crime.

In a story in The Oklahoman on Thursday, Shannon’s campaign denied coordinating with the nonprofit group supporting him, Oklahomans for a Conservative Future. The group was incorporated with the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s Office a week after Shannon announced his candidacy Jan. 29 for the seat being vacated by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee.

Federal and state election laws ban a candidate’s committee from coordinating with independent “dark money” groups to promote the candidate or attack opponents. Such groups, which grew after the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling in 2010, often are referred to as “dark” because they do not have to reveal their donors and can spend unlimited amounts in political campaigns.

Shannon’s campaign did not return phone calls or emails Friday, but referred questions to Bradley Smith, a former Federal Election Commission chairman who files FEC paperwork for the campaign. Smith said federal rules governing coordination have been narrowly written and interpreted, setting a high bar to prove such activities. He believes no coordination occurred in Shannon’s campaign.

But the Shannon campaign and some of the group’s members have close connections. At least one person involved in forming Oklahomans for a Conservative Future, Xavier Neira, also was a member of Shannon’s exploratory steering committee for the Senate race and was listed among “hosts and sponsors” of a Shannon campaign fundraiser in Oklahoma City in March. Neira also is chair and president of a second independent political group with close ties to an Oklahoma City political consulting firm, A.H. Strategies, that runs Shannon’s campaign.

Until recently, four of the five people who helped run this second group, Coalition for Oklahoma’s Future, also helped lead Oklahomans for a Conservative Future. The executive director of both groups was political consultant and lobbyist Chad Alexander, a former partner with A.H. Strategies and early donor to Shannon’s Senate campaign.

A.H. Strategies is a powerhouse in state politics and has several affiliated companies. Some are run by the company’s partners and provide a range of campaign services. A.H. Strategies and its affiliates have served clients at local, state and national levels of politics and have received advertising awards for their work.

In 2012, connections were strong between some of those leading A.H. Strategies, consultant for several candidates in state and federal races, and those leading the Coalition for Oklahoma’s Future, which did polling or sent mailers in support of at least five of those candidates, Ethics Commission records show. No allegations were made about whether these ties could lead to coordination between the nonprofit and candidates, although one candidate not represented by A.H. Strategies sued both the consultant and the coalition alleging falsehoods in political ads.

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