Elliot Chambers' appointment as secretary of the Land Office exemplifies the worst of political cronyism and undermines any desire Gov. Kevin Stitt has to become a Top 10 state.
Commissioners of the Land Office named Chambers on Tuesday to a post that oversees a constitutionally created office that manages more than 750,000 acres of land held as a "sacred trust" for the benefit public education in Oklahoma. Chambers served as chief executive officer of White Star Petroleum LLC when the bankrupt company stiffed the Land Office for more than $207,000.
Oklahoma Watch reported last week White Star, which declared bankruptcy in May 2019, subsequently sold its assets to Houston-based Contango Oil and Gas Co. for $132 million. Commissioners settled White Star's outstanding debt for underpayments and interest for oil and gas deductions and valuations on its leases settled after Contango bought the assets for about 85 cents on the dollar.
Before his stint at White Star, which began in 2016, Chambers reportedly worked as a former vice president and treasurer at Chesapeake Energy Corp. from 2008 to 2018. Commissioners of the Land Office, according to reporting by Oklahoma Watch, approved in 2013 an $18 million settlement with Chesapeake, which denied wrongdoing, for an underpayment of natural gas royalties owed for hundreds of wells in Rogers Mills County.
Stitt said Chambers has "a proven track record in corporate finance and management" along with "a strong understanding of the energy sector." His professional experience and educational qualifications — the governor's first choice lacked the latter — could help manage the Land Office's $2.3 billion portfolio of mostly oil and gas leases, and commercial and agricultural properties.
National Institute on Money in Politics records show Chambers contributed $2,500 to Stitt's 2018 campaign before the company he led filed bankruptcy, and records show he contributed about $4,000 to three other Republican candidates in 2017 and 2018. The governor didn't mention those contributions specifically as qualifying factors for the $170,000 a year job, but they probably helped grease the skids.
Numerous studies have shown this type of insider activity has an overall growth-restraining effect on economies where it is custom. Whether Chamber's campaign contributions had an impact on Stitt's push for his appointment to the Land Office is something only they know, but it sure smells from here.