Patrick B. McGuigan
In the four weeks since a breakfast meeting at Pelco Company in Edmond on May 17, exchanges among Rev. Paul Blair, journalist Ray Hibbard and other attendees have become the stuff of “truth or fiction.”
No tape recording exists of that meeting, but conflicting versions of what was said have circulated via email and on local websites -- and in interviews with CapitolBeatOK.
In the June 26 GOP primary for District 41, Blair is challenging incumbent Republican Clark Jolley, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The winner will face an independent candidate in the November general election.
CapitolBeatOK has spoken with several individuals who were present when Edmond journalist Ray Hibbard, editor of the weekly Edmond Life & Leisure, made comments on the race. The sources are divided concerning that morning’s discussion.
Some sources have said Hibbard related he had at some point before May 17 been told by a member of Governor Mary Fallin’s staff that if his newspaper did not support Clark Jolley he would not receive further advertising. In at least one recounting, Hibbard was said to have referenced “Tourism advertising.”
More than a week ago, Blair, pastor of Fairview Baptist Church, shared with CapitolBeatOK hand-written notes he affirms that he had, during the May 17 meeting, scribbled on the back of a sheet of paper (on the other side were prayer requests). One portion of the notes read, “I Don’t Give a Rip if they buy my ads or not.” Blair told CapitolBeatOK he wrote the words down as soon as he heard them from Hibbard’s mouth.
Also during the meeting, Blair wrote these words to himself as a talking point for his challenge to Jolley: “Telling the Truth Is Not Negative Camp(aigning). Here are the facts. No Spin. You Decide.”
CapitolBeatOK has confirmed with Rev. Blair that the handwriting in the two notes is his. After referencing them in an interview, he immediately provided the notes to CapitolBeatOK when asked to do so. When a difference in thickness of the writing was noted, Blair said it was because the “rip” note was scribbled in pencil, while the “truth” note to himself was made with a pen.
Hibbard, however, has told CapitolBeatOK he never said in that May 17 meeting that he had been threatened with loss of advertising by anyone on the governor’s staff. Further, he recounts that he has never received any state government advertising connected to Tourism issues. Some sources contacted by CapitolBeatOK say they did not hear Hibbard describe a threat of the sort others have said they did hear.
Hibbard has characterized the matter as “a combination of both jumbled details and an exaggeration.” Hibbard asserts he was never contacted by Governor Fallin or anyone in her office about advertising. His conversations about advertising, he said, were with representatives of contending campaigns.
Hibbard summarized for CapitolBeatOK an innocuous sounding exchange at the May 17 meeting, saying that in recalling recent communications he might have used the words “State Capital” but adding, “how that got translated to what you heard is beyond me.” He maintains “there is no truth to the assertion” he was pressured by a member of the governor’s staff.
CapitolBeatOK has summarized its reporting on the issue because the controversy has taken on aspects of “he said, he said” – with political and other sources, including witnesses, offering starkly contrasting versions of what transpired at the May 17 meeting.
On June 12, Hibbard sent a note to a local activist conservative who had widely circulated a detailed summary of what he believed Hibbard told the May 17 meeting. In the reply email to the local activist, Hibbard said he had asked about campaign “tracking” at the May 17 meeting – but did not describe a threat.
The race has become increasingly divisive, with high-powered independently-financed advertisements supporting Jolley and opposing Blair. Television spots drawing massive critical scrutiny in recent days were placed by the Coalition for Oklahoma’s Future PAC, a group whose reports have been prepared by a consultant named Rebecca Burgin.
Jolley’s critics say consultant Chad Alexander is guiding the operation. The PAC is operating an independent expenditure not under Sen. Jolley’s control.
On Friday, concerning assertions that he lost a business for not paying taxes, Blair called on supporters of the PAC to “disassociate themselves from what has been one of the most seedy and underhanded campaign strategies that I have ever witnessed in Oklahoma.”
Blair says his motivation for running against Sen. Jolley is that he believes the incumbent is a moderate. Blair, a conservative, has objected to advertisements supporting Jolley which he asserts are “repeated lies and character assassination.” Blair says campaign literature has included “deceptive mail pieces which were followed by phone calls alleging that my vending business had been involved in scandal, then outright calling me a liar on radio ads.” Claims that he has had tax problems are “absolutely not true,” Blair maintains.
David F. Johnson -- a certified public accountant who has since the 1980s prepared income tax returns, franchise tax returns and other things required to do business for Blair and for companies had has owned, operated or been associated with – defended Blair in a letter last week.
Johnson says his own knowledge and examination of websites of the state tax commission and secretary of state records “did not find a single instance of any delinquency filing, failure to file, any wrongdoing or anything inappropriate.”
He told Blair, in the widely circulated letter, “in no case was any business owned or operated by you ever forced out of business by failing to comply with all the rules and regulations of the State of Oklahoma or any other regulatory agency.”
Johnson added, “All the businesses you have been associated with, owned and/or operated have always paid their taxes. And you have always filed and paid your personal taxes.”