In what appear to be violations of state law, a number of legislative candidates accepted donations directly from corporations, a review of campaign finance data by The Oklahoman found.
Doris Row, a Democrat running for House District 22, filed reports with the Ethics Commission that showed several donations came directly from businesses in and around her hometown, Sulphur.
“What we're going to do is write the checks back to those donors,” Row said. “We just made a mistake. … We would never do anything that was considered illegal intentionally.”
Row said this is the first time she and her campaign treasurer have run a campaign.
“It slipped by us,” she said.
The donations to Row that appear to be from registered corporations are: $500 from Sulphur Abstract & Title Inc., $100 from DeArman Properties Inc. and $100 from Wayne Edison Chevrolet Buick Inc.
Row also reported receiving an in-kind donation of $504 for advertisements with The Davis News, which is a corporation.
Marilyn Hughes, executive director of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, said Oklahoma is one of 17 states that bans corporations from contributing directly to candidates. The federal government also bans corporate giving in federal elections.
“It's just a mistrust of the corporate form because it can amass large sums of money, which makes the playing field unlevel for the average citizens,” Hughes said. “It's also to prevent quid pro quo, giving this in return for that.”
Hughes said most questionable contributions involve first-time candidates who are unaware of the prohibition or don't realize that an entity is a corporation.
Finance rules are complex
Understanding the rules and regulations of campaign finance is difficult, Hughes said.
Some businesses, such as limited liability companies and sole proprietorships, can and do give directly to candidates.
State law limits any individual, political action committee, or business to giving up to $5,000 to each candidate. But corporations are allowed to set up political action committees that can give up to $5,000 directly to campaigns.
Hughes said the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United also opened up the door for corporations to form political action committees and spend an unlimited amount on any candidate as long as it is done independent of the candidate's campaign.
Rep. Jabar Shumate, D-Tulsa, was among those caught off guard by the ban on corporate donations. He accepted $300 from Westview Pharmacy in Tulsa. The Oklahoma secretary of state's website lists Westview as a for-profit corporation.
Shumate, a four-term house member seeking a Senate seat, said Tuesday he was unaware the contribution might run afoul of state law.
“I did not know and I really appreciate you for alerting me,” he said. “I'll get with my treasurer and look into it. If it's improper, we will refund that or get that directed another way.”
Asked if he was aware that contributions from for-profit corporations are illegal, Shumate said, “I'm not necessarily, generally, an expert on all campaign laws ... I don't know all the specifics or details. I have a campaign treasurer that looks through those things.”
Jason Smalley, a Republican candidate for House District 32 in Lincoln and Logan counties, received a donation from Champion Cleaning Service in Stroud, a registered for-profit corporation on the secretary of state's website.
“Honestly, that's my neighbor and that's his business,” Smalley said.
He said he would go back and check whether the donation was from his neighbor as an individual or from the corporation, adding he'd give the $100 back if anything was wrong.
Democratic candidate Patty Wagstaff, for House District 26, said the $100 from J Thompson Consulting Inc. was from her former next-door neighbor, and she thought it was from the individual, not the company.
“I will definitely give him a call and get that taken care of,” Wagstaff said.
Return of funds is first step
Hughes said the first step is for candidates to return funds if they violate the law. She said from there the Ethics Commission or a district attorney could pursue further penalties.
Other contributions that appear to be from corporations:
Rep. James Lockhart, D-Heavener, accepted $89.50 from Tyson Organization Inc., also listed by the Texas secretary of state as a for-profit corporation.
Nancy Niemann, a Democratic candidate running for House District 37, reported in-kind contributions of $794.63 from Head Country Bar-B-Q Inc. and $100 from hi-fi Systems Inc. Both are listed as corporations by the Oklahoma secretary of state.
Niemann's Republican opponent, Rep. Steven Vaughn, reported a $500 contribution from Mitchco Inc., a registered corporation in Ponca City.
Rep. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw, reported contributions of $250 from Rocky's Corner Inc., an Oklahoma corporation.
Those four candidates could not be reached for comment Tuesday.