Megan Prather NonDoc.com
Increasing the use of technology and making improvements to the state’s Unclaimed Property Program are two issues of focus for the three Republicans running to be the next Oklahoma state treasurer. However, the race has experienced a massive shake up over the past two weeks after one candidate, David Hooten, was accused of sexual harassment and resigned from his position as Oklahoma County clerk.
Hooten will still appear on the June 28 primary election ballot, along with former legislator and Oklahoma Tax Commission Chairman Clark Jolley and term-limited Rep. Todd Russ (R-Cordell). All three spoke to NonDoc about their campaigns for the statewide office.
“If people with real-life experience and professional careers behind them don’t step up and serve in public office, we can’t complain when all we have is career politicians filling those spots,” said Russ, who has served for 12 years in the Legislature.
The state treasurer oversees about $22 billion of state money each year and is tasked with providing safe and efficient operation of state government through effective banking investment and cash management. The treasurer sits on the Board of Equalization and is involved in preparing accurate financial forecasts for the budget.
“The treasurer is engaged in so many aspects of Oklahomans’ lives,” Jolley said. “They manage the 529 College Savings Plan, which is a game-changer to reduce student loan debt and encourage people to be able to save money for college or career tech. They manage the unclaimed property program, which reunites Oklahomans with their lost wealth. But, more than anything else, the treasurer is the chief elected financial officer of the state.”
Current State Treasurer Randy McDaniel announced last June that he would not be seeking reelection in order to prioritize his family.
“Nothing is broken in their office. Nothing needs to be fixed,” Hooten said in an interview days before allegations against him became public. “I think what I bring to the table is, technologically, I can help it work a little faster and a little better. If I can save just 10 percent of the amount of money going through that office, it would be a lot of money. I think I’m qualified to handle that.”
On June 9, an audio recording was released in which Hooten can be heard describing a proposed “team-building” exercise for certain employees that would involve alcohol, gambling and facing their “biggest fears.” The conversation, which was captured by a county employee during a meeting in April, was reported to the county’s Human Resources Department and to the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office.
“There will be alcohol involved, meaning we will drink. We will do things. We will gamble. We will do a bunch of things. Some will be fun, some will be scary, but the whole point is it’s going to take us out of your comfort level and at the end you’ll have felt like you endured something,” Hooten said in the recording. “And just so you all know, I’ve been genetically altered so I don’t get drunk no matter what. They gave me a chemical that changes your brain, because I travel in Europe, and so it actually won’t have an effect on me. But hopefully it has an effect on you all.”
The report released by the Sheriff’s Office outlines this incident, as well as allegations of Hooten using county employees to run his political campaigns on county time and an alleged incident of sexual harassment involving a female employee.
Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 28. Early voting is open from June 23-25.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will head to a runoff on Aug. 23. The winner of the Republican primary will face Democrat Charles De Coune and Libertarian Gregory J. Sadler in the general election on Nov. 8.
Jolley said his many years in state government and dealing with state finances have prepared him for the role of treasurer. Before entering the race, he was appointed by Gov. Mary Fallin and served four and a half years as a member of the Oklahoma Tax Commission. Prior to that, he had a 12-year stint in the State Senator representing the Edmond area and finishing his legislative career as as chairman of the Senate Appropriations and Budget Committee. He also served as the state’s secretary of finance under Fallin.
Jolley said he would provide a voice of fiscal conservatism and that he particularly wants to focus on improving the performance of and participation in the Oklahoma 529 College Savings Plan, which offers families tax advantages to encourage saving for education expenses.
“We need to have someone there that has been in those downtimes as well as the up times and can speak truth to power,” Jolley said. “The 529 (College Savings Plan) is a significant tool that’s not discussed nearly as much as it should be. The Unclaimed Property Program, personally, I’ve had some frustrations with how difficult that program is.”
Jolley said he’d like to see the office improve its use of technology and of cooperative agreements with other public agencies and private sector entities to reunite Oklahomans with their wealth through the Unclaimed Property Program.
Russ, who has more than 35 years of banking experience and most recently served as chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Transportation Subcommittee, said he would also like to look into the state’s Unclaimed Property Program.
“That’s a real challenge right now that I’d be interested in looking at. The state has a billion dollars in unclaimed property,” Russ said. “I’d really like to get my head in that and see if there’s some problems with the trust process clearing well enough to get stuff into the hands of the family members rather than bogging down and coming back into the State of Oklahoma to look over.”
Jolley said the next treasurer also needs to fight against the “intrusions from Washington into Oklahomans’ pocketbooks and into our economy.”
“I think the treasurer has a role to play in fighting against what the current administration is doing with financial regulation of fossil fuels,” Jolley said. “They are trying to starve fossil fuel companies out of existence. There’s no question, agriculture will be the next target after that.”
Hooten is a Grammy and Emmynominated trumpet player who has released 22 albums on his label, DBH Productions Inc. He is also the owner of Hooten’s Jazz Kitchen, which produces an Italian meat sauce. Prior to his work as county clerk, Hooten served as the executive director of the Child Abuse Response and Advocacy Center.
Hooten ran for the State House of Representatives in 2004 as a Democrat, but he was stripped from the ballot by the Oklahoma Election Board for not meeting voter registration requirements. He ran for State Senate as a Republican in 2014.
Regarding his political affiliation switch, Hooten said he didn’t change, the party did.
“When I read what the Democratic Party stood for, I realized that the party had changed,” Hooten said. “I hadn’t changed. I’m still a working person who runs companies and does things. I changed to Republican because it fit me better.”
Hooten said the technological transformation he spearheaded in the Oklahoma County Clerk’s Office would make him an asset as state treasurer. The Oklahoma County office was recently named a 2022 Tyler Technology Public Sector Excellence Award winner.
“When I became county clerk, the office was not doing very well. It was out of money. They were taking cash only and they were very limited in their computer skills,” Hooten said. “In the first two years, I digitized all of our books and our deeds. I built okcc.online, which is a website where you can go and see your data, download your data, do anything you want to do and you never have to come to my office.”
Part of this technology improvement, Hooten said, includes ensuring that meetings of the Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners are streamed online for the public to view.
“Sometimes it’s ugly, with the protesters and all that stuff it can be very ugly. But I want people to see how the sausage is made, because that’s really important,” Hooten said. “Transparency in government is important.”
Prior to Hooten announcing his resignation, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said he planned to seek the removal of Hooten from office during a Board of County Commissioners meeting this week.
In addition to the incidents covered in the recent sheriff’s report, Hooten has faced other controversy during his time as County Clerk. He was unsuccessfully sued by a handful of county employees for wrongfultermination owing to their support for Hooten’s 2016 opponent, incumbent Carolynn Caudill.
In 2018, the county did pay $175,000 to an employee, Leona Porter, who filed a lawsuit alleging age and race discrimination. Porter, a longtime county employee, said Hooten made her sit in a rocking chair to serve as a greeter.
Russ echoed Hooten’s sentiments about the need to advance the use of technology in the treasurer’s office. He also said he has a lot of experience with pensions in the state.
“I was actually a co-chairman with Randy McDaniel when he was chairing that pension oversight committee in the House, and I’m acutely aware of the pitfalls and dangers for the pension system in the state and watching over those,” Russ said.
Russ said his experience as a banker and legislator in the House makes him uniquely qualified for the position.
“You’ve got to have somebody that’s able to fill this role that understands both sides of it,” Russ said. “You’ve got to understand it from the taxpayers’ perspective. You’ve got to understand it from the accountability perspective on the legislative side. I’ve got both of those.”