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Former state auditor and GOP chairman says Epic scandal facilitated by Republicans 'gutting' Ethics Commission

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"You follow the dots, and it's a direct line," former Oklahoma Auditor Gary Jones said at a press conference Friday. "Now we know for certain — and it's not individuals giving money; it's our own tax dollars."

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s former state auditor and GOP chairman said Friday that new revelations about Epic Charter Schools’ co-founders extensive efforts to influence political campaigns and state policymaking call for an overhaul of ethics rules.

Gary Jones, who was term-limited in 2018 and succeeded by current State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd, announced at a press conference that he had just filed a formal ethics complaint against Epic co-founders Ben Harris and David Chaney, Fount Holland, Matt Parker and David Tackett.

Speaking at the Oklahoma Republican Party headquarters, Jones faulted members of his own party for the current state of affairs in state politics and campaigns.

“The Legislature has gutted ethics,” Jones said. “I’m ashamed to say they’re Republicans — or people who claim to be Republicans.”

A court affidavit filed on Thursday alongside the criminal charges revealed that investigators have records that school funds were used to cover the costs of extensive political contributions made with private credit cards.

Byrd said recently that she suspects hundreds of thousands spent on independent expenditures on television ads and mailers in support of her reelection campaign opponent, Steve McQuillen, have come from the Epic founders in retaliation for her office’s scathing 2020 audit of their handling of public school dollars.

According to the Epic charging document and other records, Harris and Chaney have sent many hundreds of thousands of dollars to Prosperity Alliance Inc., a 501©(4) used to protect the political donors’ identities.

Prosperity Alliance is connected to American Values First, which appears to be the source of much of the material attacking Byrd.

American Values First is also tied to Holland and Parker.

Other independent expenditures against Byrd are credited to a separate political action committee associated with operatives within Holland and Parker’s circle.

“You follow the dots, and it’s a direct line,” Jones said at Friday’s press conference. “Now we know for certain — and it’s not individuals giving money; it’s our own tax dollars.”

Jones said that if the Legislature will not restore rules for ethical political campaigns, he would help lead an initiative petition drive to try to persuade Oklahomans to do it themselves and create an independent funding stream so lawmakers cannot undermine the Ethics Commission by reducing state funding.

“What we will do is go to the people and say you will fund an independent ethics commission,” Jones said.

He compared McQuillen to former state Sen. Gene Stipe, who ended a half-century political career in federal prison after being convicted of using “straw donors” to exceed federal contribution limits to support a congressional candidate.

“Today what we’re seeing is not straw donors but a straw candidate,” said Jones. “The Steve McQuillen you see in all the ads does not exist. He’s simply a name on a ballot. He’s the creation of political consultants.”

Jones said the Epic court documents provide a rare look into “dark money” by exposing the source.

“Folks, the work has been done,” he said “The light has been shined on this — it’s no longer dark money. We’re asking for the Ethics Commission to do an immediate investigation. We’re asking for law enforcement to look for criminal prosecution. We’re in the process of working with lawyers to file civil (suits).

“This isn’t going away. We’re not going to let this happen to the individual and her staff who did phenomenal work.”

Jones said state leaders “knew there was something going on (at Epic) in 2013, but no one that could authorize us to do the audit would ask.”

That changed after a 2019 request from Gov. Kevin Stitt brought forensic auditors from Byrd’s office in to examine Epic’s use of public education dollars.

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