NORMAN, Okla. (KFOR) – Newly released information shows the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA) may have expected criticism about the highly contested Access Oklahoma project – and purchased more than twenty domain names less than three weeks before publicly announcing the planned expansion.
The email, dated February 7th, shows the OTA purchased numerous domain names weeks before announcing the planned expansion; before potential opponents to the project could use them.
“In documents received prior to [Wednesday’s] deposition of Jessica Brown, OTA’s ‘Director of Strategic Communications,’ it clearly shows show that, weeks before the 2/22/22 rollout, the OTA, through Ms. Brown and its long-time public relations firm, Jones PR, had been secretly buying up numerous internet domain names which they anticipated opponents of the forthcoming Kickapoo Turnpike Extensions could secure for themselves and utilize to marshal opposition,” stated attorney Richard Labarthe in an email Wednesday.
Richard Labarthe, co-counsel in a lawsuit representing residents affected by the turnpike against the transportation agency, said the OTA violated Oklahoma’s open meetings act by not operating according to the law.
Labarthe said the email indicates a “willfull” intent to suppress free speech and public opposition to the project and keep Oklahomans in the dark.
“Trying to torpedo any possible public opposition by snapping up all conceivable names that any opponent might want to try to use…it’s a very unsettling and improper thing for state agencies to be doing,” he said in an interview Thursday with KFOR.
“The whole reason we have [the] open meetings act [is] so that citizens can articulate and question and challenge and engage in discussion and allow government to make better decisions.”
The plan to expand highway infrastructure across the state has been met with considerable pushback from hundreds of families and businesses in the proposed path, that could be forced from their property.
Tanner Naeher, a web developer and member of the Pike Off OTA group said while it’s not unusual for an entity to purchase other domain names similar to their own, the OTA’s actions indicate clear intent to deceive Oklahomans.
“It’s very disappointing…to sit out there and buy up your oppositions, it shows definite intent that they didn’t want any kind of pushback on this project,”he said.
Naeher said he proposed to his wife on a property in Norman where a turnpike could eventually run through.
“It”s been very emotional. It’s really hard for me to talk about because, I mean, we had planned to raise our our daughter out here and give her a country life setting.”
“It is a nightmare, to say the least, knowing that everything you have worked your life for [your American] dream is going to be stolen from you because, you know, eight people up at the Capitol decide, ‘hey, we’re going to put a toll road through this property’.”
Attempts to contact OTA representatives by phone and email Thursday were unsuccessful. However, in an email last week to KFOR, the agency said they were “supportive of the [Supreme] Court’s process to ultimately provide clarity on the issue”.
However, the other side says this is just more evidence that the agency hasn’t been upfront about their plans.
“Trying to deny the public’s right to knowledge is not what a state agency should be doing [and] if they [were] transparent to begin with, we wouldn’t be having these lawsuits and depositions to find the facts,” said Norman Ward 5 councilman Rarchar Tortorello, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
“My constituents want to be part of the process to give their input and when we win this [lawsuit, it] will give them the opportunity to do just that.”
On Monday, the judge assigned to the Supreme Court case will hear arguments on both sides on motions for summary judgment.