Lawmakers say widespread political donations have made it difficult to solve epic problems | Policy
OKLAHOMA CITY — Lawmakers who have raised concerns about Epic charter schools say lawmakers and others allowed the alleged illegal activity to occur because of massive and widespread political contributions — contributions that, according to prosecutors, were made with funds provided by taxpayers through bank accounts tied to Epic.
The two co-founders, David Chaney and Ben Harris, along with Josh Brock, their former chief financial officer, were charged on Thursday with racketeering, embezzlement, fraud and other embezzlement of public funds during their operation of Epic, a public school in charter, and Epic Youth Services LLC, a for-profit provider company created to run the schools.
Former state senator Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, one of the first lawmakers to question Epic’s handling of state dollars, said legislation he drafted to stop the activity had not been heard. Instead, he said he was removed from his position on the Senate Education Committee and sued by Epic using state tax money. Sharp ended up winning – defended, ironically, by attorneys also paid by the state.
Sharp, however, lost re-election in 2020 after Epic’s founders spent tens of thousands of dollars against him, according to the charging documents.
State Rep. Sheila Dills, R-Tulsa, said when she came to the Legislative Assembly in 2019 with the goal of making charter schools like Epic more fiscally responsible for the taxes they receive, told him that no such legislation could get a vote unless Harris agreed.
“I was forced – forced – to have a meeting with Ben Harris,” Dills said on Friday. “There were influential people in this room. I won’t name names, but Ben Harris had to be present at this meeting and everyone had to agree. It was ridiculous.”
To Dills’ surprise, Harris agreed to language that became Senate Bill 1395, which required Epic to begin itemizing administrative expenses paid directly to Chaney, Harris, and Brock. That was ultimately a factor in their arrests on Thursday, as prosecutors said those itemized bills were falsified.
Dills said she thought Harris agreed because he didn’t think the bills would ever be reviewed and because the pressure against Epic was starting to mount.
The House unanimously passed additional oversight this spring, but Dills was unable to secure a vote in the Senate.
Dills, who is not seeking re-election after two terms, said: “The culture (of the Legislative Assembly) is ridiculous. Oklahoma people are getting ripped off. … It’s a disgusting environment.
Chaney and Harris used their financial and political resources to influence elections, including Sharp’s defeat in 2020, according to the charging document.
Harris made payments from his personal bank account to an opposition research firm that produced negative campaign mailings regarding Sharp in the 2020 election, the documents show.
Harris also made significant donations to a political action committee that was formed to produce negative information about Sharp, according to the documents.
“They totally destroyed me in 2020,” said Sharp, who is considering another bid for the office.
The charging document and other information says Harris and Chaney also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to defeat State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd, whose bureau’s scathing investigation into Epic and the entities. associates was a major contributor to Thursday’s charges.
A document released as part of the charges shows that between 2014 and 2020, Chaney, Harris and Brock paid out at least $460,119 in funds to lawmakers, candidates, state officials and others.
They also paid $774,500 to Prosperity Alliance, Inc., a 501(c)4 organization used primarily to launder political contributions. Prosperity Alliance has been linked to the attacks on Byrd.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who switched from Republican to Democrat to run for governor, was one of the top recipients with $52,138.
Hofmeister said Friday that she has put in place measures with the Ethics Commission to legally reimburse public schools for any campaign donations that may have come from public funds through Epic’s founders.
According to the charging documents, Harris, Chaney and Brock paid the conservatives $450,000 for a large broken arrow, $85,120 to INIT 2 LLC and $25,800 to Vote Safe, all associated with political consultant David Tackett. They also appear to have been involved in a near-successful attempt to defeat State Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow, in 2020.
Contacted on Friday, McDugle said he believed he was considered vulnerable because of a high-profile Facebook rant against teachers and because he voted for tax increases that paid for teacher increases.
“I then thought it was probably $55-60,000 that they spent on me,” McDugle said.
Other improper payments with public funds, prosecutors say, included $100,000 to the Oklahoma Public Affairs Council, a staunch supporter of Epic and charter schools.
“When people give to OCPA, they are supporting our mission, not the other way around,” said OCPA member David and Ann Brown Trent England. “OCPA has supported education reform since the 1990s, so the idea that a donation in 2019 changed our position is silly.”
Governor Kevin Stitt received $10,800 in campaign donations. His campaign manager, Donelle Harder, said Friday he would donate the amount to Crossover Academy, a private Christian school.
Sen. Paul Rosino, R-Oklahoma City, received a maximum donation of $5,600 two days after Byrd’s audit was released, the document said.
Ronsino “then drafted Senate Bill 895 which sought to limit the authority of the state auditor, control how he reported the results of investigative audits, and significantly reduce his funding,” according to the documents.
The bill was not approved.
Rosino did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Between March 14 and May 2021, Chaney, Harris and/or Epic Youth Services paid $520,000 to Capitol Gains, which is owned by lobbyist Bobby Stem, according to the document. Stem is a longtime and well-known lobbyist on Capitol Hill.
He did not respond to a request for comment.
Sharp said the situation could have been resolved years earlier.
“I introduced eight bills in 2019 and 2020 that would have stopped this,” Sharp said. “I couldn’t even make them hear.”