Days before the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority announced plans to build toll roads the agency bought more than a dozen website names viewed as critical of the proposed expansion, email records indicate.
The agency unveiled a $5 billion, 15-year statewide expansion of the state’s toll road system on Feb. 22.
Emails between OTA spokeswoman Jessica Brown and Jones PR — a public relations contractor for the agency — dated Feb. 7 and Feb. 8 show OTA purchased 15 website domains about two weeks before the Feb. 22 meeting.
OTA purchased domains such as “stop OTA,” “no more turnpikes,” “Oklahomans against turnpikes,” “Norman roads,” and “stop the eastern SE loop,” records show.
Known as ACCESS Oklahoma, the plan includes a proposed turnpike on the west side of the Lake Thunderbird Watershed and one along Indian Hills Road. The projects are the subject of two lawsuits pending in district court.
OTA spokesman Bryce Boyer said the agency purchased the domains to better inform the public.
“It is common practice and the industry standard for an entity to purchase multiple domain names to help ensure the public has access to accurate information, to bar phishing sites with very similar domain names, and to protect against user error,” Boyer said in an email to The Transcript.
“In no form or fashion has OTA ever attempted to silence those opposed to turnpikes. OTA’s goal is to provide the public with the most accurate and up-to-date information possible.”
Local attorney Stan Ward interpreted those actions differently.
“What they wanted to do was to claim names that were in opposition to the ACCESS Oklahoma programs,” he said.
Ward said the move was an indication that the agency knew more than it conveyed on its agendas for the Feb. 22 meeting which did not include specifics of the routes.
The attorney filed an Open Meeting Act violation lawsuit in May against OTA which alleged the public was not sufficiently informed according to the law.
“They spent state funds and went out and bought a bunch of domains to prevent people I represent out here from using one of those names to become an opposition name,” Ward told The Transcript. “Now, does that sound like someone trying to control speech?”
“Their answer is as ludicrous and comical as their attempt to preempt all possible public opposition was underhanded,” co-counsel Richard Labarthe said. “It’s very unseemly for our state government to function in this manner against innocent citizens.”
The exclusion of those websites converged with the accusations raised in his lawsuit, Ward said.
“That’s the whole intent of this Open Meeting Act, to have an informed citizenry and to allow people to express their viewpoints,” he said. “When you go out and use state funds to buy domain names so I can’t use them in opposition to your program, it sounds a little bit strange if not sinister.”
Rarchar Tortorello, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the intent seemed obvious. He is also a Norman City Council member representing Ward 5, which will be the area of the city most impacted if the toll roads are built.
“If you look at those domain names and when they were created, you can draw a conclusion that they’re trying to buy up all the domain names in opposition to their plans,” Tortorello said. “It’s still pretty damning because it shows intent. I think beyond a reasonable doubt this was their plan all along.”
Residents across the greater Oklahoma City metro area and Norman launched a resistance to turnpike expansion in 1990s. The agency’s plan included the Oklahoma City Outer Loop which proposed a toll road near the lake at the time.
The broad resistance led to the agency’s withdrawal of an outer turnpike loop in Norman when then Transportation Secretary Neil McCaleb was quoted as saying, “The people of Central Oklahoma have spoken” when he announced an indefinite discontinuation of the plan.
The city council and Cleveland County Commissioners passed resolutions in opposition to the current turnpike projects in Norman and the county earlier this year.